Barry’s Blog # 198: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Nine

Syria, Iraq and ISIS:

For several years the media have persisted in telling us that the U.S. “won” in Iraq because of the troop surge that Bush began in 2007 and Obama continued into 2011, when he announced a formal end to the occupation. However, this included maintaining 5,000 private security contractors and 16,000 State Department “civilian employees” there. Knowing their history of engaging in war crimes, he tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Iraqi government to grant them immunity from prosecution.

Full-scale war, of course, never stopped, nor did massive American expenditures. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz contends that the total, including hidden costs, will exceed $3 trillion.  It is now a civil war between Shias and Sunnis, who are the main leaders and supporters of ISIS. Major Danny Sjursen, an Iraq veteran, writes:

…the surge was incapable of addressing, and barely pretended to face, the true conundrum of the invasion and occupation: any American-directed version of Iraqi “democracy” would invariably usher in Shia-majority dominance over a largely synthetic state. The real question no surge cheerleaders publicly asked (or ask to this day) was whether an invading foreign entity was even capable of imposing an inclusive political settlement there. To assume that the United States could have done so smacks of a faith-based as opposed to reality-based worldview – another version of a deep and abiding belief in American exceptionalism.

Cui bono? Do you remember when the embarrassed Bush administration changed the title of the invasion to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OIF) after someone noticed the acronym formed by the letters of its original name, “Operation Iraqi Liberation”?

Obama claimed that his wars were legal under the 2001 and 2003 authorizations for the use of military force to pursue Al-Qaeda. But Syria has nothing to do with 9-11. How did this war, with its half million dead and seven million refugees, begin? First, let’s acknowledge that Bashar Assad’s cruel regime is irrelevant, unless you still believe that the U.S. intervenes in other countries for “humanitarian” reasons. Cui bono? We are talking about “regime change” – and oil pipelines. Bush had planned to overthrow Assad as far back as 2006. Obama’s second major foreign policy crime – war crime – was to deploy Bush’s plans. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes:

Secret cables and reports by the U.S., Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria…was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective…In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria.

In August 2012, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda were “the major forces driving the insurgency. But Obama preferred a different narrative. All it took was an alleged massacre – by the old standby “gassingweapons of mass destruction” – for him to threaten missile attacks on the Syrian government. The media happy complied. All Things Considered claimed that he “…has done everything he can to avoid another foreign military involvement, but he can’t avoid it after the widespread use of chemical weapons on this scale.” Chemical weapons? Were we really going down that rat hole once again?

Let’s be real clear on this point: Obama, like Bush and Lyndon Johnson before him, was lying to the nation to get it into another war. And he was also distracting it from the real history of American involvement in mass atrocities. He did this because, as I wrote:

Americans, though naïve, are no more inherently violent than other peoples. The state must regularly administer massive dosages of indoctrination to reanimate our sense of innocence. Propaganda merges with belief; every student learns that America never starts wars but always aids those in need. The mythic appeal is so fundamental that occasional disclosures of the truth – cracks in the myth of innocence – do little to alter popular consciousness…Still, the narrative of innocence requires constant ceremonial maintenance, including the regular creation of new images of “evildoers.”

A year later, the U.S. reached further heights of hypocrisy when it demanded that Syria eliminate all chemical weapons by June 30, 2014. Around the same time it requested an extension for itself to 2023 of the U.N. Convention on Chemical Weapons, a treaty it had ratified in 1997. The Syrians had already proposed years earlier to get rid of these weapons. The Russians made a similar proposal, which Washington rejected. When the Syrians called Obama’s bluff and did remove them, Congress restrained direct intervention.

Undeterred by public opposition, the administration gave the green light to the Saudis, who began to funnel massive aid to their Salafi jihadist surrogates. The U.S. itself was spending a billion dollars per year arming and training these “ moderate rebels”. Without this aid, Assad – for better or for worse – would have crushed the rebellion quickly. With it, the carnage increased, and so did the refugee flow.

Let’s be clear (as clear as we can) about another thing. The world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis since at least World War Two. Many thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Literally tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees are wandering the streets of Europe. And the resultant backlash and scapegoating among Islamophobic Americans led directly to the fiasco of the 2016 election. We have Trump not despite Obama but because of him.

This crisis has many causes. But Obama’s decisions to destabilize Syria and Libya (see below) were the major factors. Let’s be clear about this as well: his wars of regime change and his refusal to leave Afghanistan directly contributed to the growth of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS.

We have to see American policy – and Obama’s role in it – in the proper context. The only states in the Muslim world that are not U.S. puppets are Iran and Syria, and the U.S. labeled them as threats only because they resisted American hegemony. And for quite a while, Syria was the only such state actually fighting ISIS and Al-Qaeda. After visiting Syria, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard accused her own government of funding and arming ISIS.  Glen Ford bluntly argues:

The U.S. claim that it is waging a global “war on terror” is the biggest lie of the 21st century …In reality, the U.S. is the birth mother and chief nurturer of the global jihadist network …deployment of jihadists has become central to U.S. imperial policy…And, there is no question that “internal rivalries” do abound in the U.S. war machine, with CIA-sponsored jihadists attacking Pentagon-sponsored jihadists in Syria – the point being, the U.S. backs a wide range of jihadists that have conflicts with one another…the general aim of the Obama administration’s jihadist policy, now deeply in crisis: to preserve the Islamic State as a fighting force for deployment under another brand name, under new top leadership. The Islamic State went “rogue,” by the Americans’ definition, when it began pursuing its own mission…Even so, the U.S. mainly targeted top ISIS leaders for elimination, allowing the main body of fighters, estimated at around 30,000, to not only remain intact, but to be constantly resupplied and to carry on a vast oil business, mainly with NATO ally Turkey.

Even with such dubious intentions, the Pentagon admits that it has spent over $11 billion on the air war against ISIS. In 2016 alone, it dropped at least 26,171 bombs – three bombs per hour, 24 hours a day. Each combat drone required a team of at least 150 people to maintain and prepare to fire it. While most of these attacks were in Syria and Iraq, they also killed people in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (the same seven majority-Muslim countries from which Trump has tried to ban immigration). Medea Benjamin reminds us that

We have no idea how many civilians have been killed in the massive bombings in Iraq and Syria, where the US military is often pursuing ISIS in the middle of urban neighborhoods. We only sporadically hear about civilian killings in Afghanistan, such as the tragic bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz that left 42 dead and 37 wounded …Pushed to release information about civilian deaths in drone strikes, in July 2016 the US government made the absurd claim it had killed, at most, 116 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between 2009 and 2015…The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has tracked drone strikes for years, said the true figure was six times higher. Given that drones account for only a small portion of the munitions dropped in the past eight years, the numbers of civilians killed by Obama’s bombs could be in the thousands.

The administration’s response to these reports was that they may have been marred by “terrorist propaganda.” Indeed, since Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were areas of “active hostilities” it excluded them from the calculations. In June 2011, John Brennan claimed “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” But the Pentagon had defined as a terrorist any male between the ages of 20 and 40 exhibiting “behavior deemed suspicious” and thus liable to what it euphemistically called “signature strikes.” Daniel Lazare writes:

…the President had in fact signed a secret Executive Order allowing such strikes to continue in Pakistan, directly contradicting his public stance. In June 2016 evidence also emerged that signature strikes were ongoing in Yemen as well, likely through a similar secret policy.

Even the Military Times admits:

The American military has failed to publicly disclose potentially thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan…The enormous data gap raises serious doubts about transparency in reported progress against the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, and calls into question the accuracy of other Defense Department disclosures documenting everything from costs to casualty counts.

Of course, all recent presidents have been aware of unpublicized CIA assassinations. However, as Tom Engelhardt writes:

In previous eras…presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability…We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief… assassination has been thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president…

What the administration did “disclose” was the existence of yet another “other” – the “Khorasan group”, which CBS News called “a more immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.” It was worse than ISIS, which was worse than Al Qaeda, which was worse than the Taliban (even if they were all fighting each other). But when no evidence of this threat was offered, it quickly disappeared from view.

Consider for a moment what these people are doing, their rationales, their religious belief in their own moral purity, their autocratic sense of privilege, their unlimited budgets, their confidence in knowing that they are accountable to no one, and the fact obvious to any idiot that such policies were creating far more new terrorists than they were killing (by one count 10-15 civilians killed for every militant), and then place them into a slightly different context:

…thought about another way, that “terror Tuesday” scene might not be from a monastery or a church synod, but from a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating “hits” in a rough-and-tumble world.

Or consider another perspective, the mythological. We are in the realm of Apollo, who can kill from a distance with his bow and arrow.  This god – at least a poor version of him – opposes the inevitable Dionysian upswelling of revolutionary energy by repressed people. Or, as James Hillman noted in discussing the detached, Apollonic consciousness that characterizes all of Western Civilization, “…his distance kills.”

Apollo had reigned ever since our ancestors realized that they could harm each other, and minimize danger to themselves, by throwing rocks and then inventing spears, archery, catapults and guns. American pilots had destroyed inconceivably vast areas of Viet Nam in their B-52 bombers, where they’d been too high in the sky to even hear the explosions.

It was merely another step in advanced battlefield technology to have men with joysticks in air-conditioned offices commanding drones to destroy people of color at wedding parties hundreds of miles away. And who better to serve as the face of this modern, unemotional carnage than the calm, detached, cerebral Obama?

Could any strategy expert have invented a scheme more likely to create more enemies and extend more wars into an infinite future? At what point do we begin to ask: was this really the purpose?

Tragedy or farce? In October 2016, Obama sanctimoniously warned that in the future “…you (could) end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” But he claimed that the accountability and transparency measures he was instituting would make that less likely. “By the time I leave here, the American people are going to have a better sense of what their president is doing.” Indeed.

Deliberate design or incompetence? Again, what was he doing in (to) Syria? Was he actually in charge? Former CIA officer Ray McGovern reveals that the Pentagon and the CIA had created various groups of “moderate rebels” who were in fact fighting each other:

It has been sort of a helter-skelter choosing process, reminiscent of the people we chose to go into Iraq and set up a government more amenable to our influence. The “moderate” rebels that we are allegedly supporting – you know it is really bizarre because the President of the U.S. two years ago said: ‘There are no moderate rebels. This is a fantasy’. Well, if it is a fantasy and there are no moderate rebels, whom we are supporting there…once you have a covert action program with 500 million dollars like the Defense had, you’ve got all this money and people say: ‘Let’s find some moderate rebels because we have all this money.’

And though the administration claimed that the main fight was against ISIS, some of the CIA-backed groups were affiliated with Al Qaeda and primarily fighting against Assad.

Meanwhile, lest we forget the crucial fact, ISIS was receiving most of its support from U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is absolutely inconceivable that the Pentagon and the CIA were not aware of this.

U.S. support for a particular group changed from one part of Syria to another. The Pentagon backed Kurdish YPG forces in eastern Syria but not the YPG in northern Aleppo. Indeed, the YPG north of Aleppo has attacked U.S.-backed forces.

In January 2017, American airstrikes “mistakenly” attacked Syrian army positions, killing 62 soldiers. For an analysis of the complex machinations and internal backstabbing that led Russian U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin to ask, “Who is in charge in Washington? The White House or the Pentagon?” see Gareth Porter’s article.

At best, Obama could not control the murderers. At worst, he was indistinguishable from them, and thus utterly complicit in the fix. The administration wanted both to limit the influence of ISIS and to overthrow Assad, and the military and CIA were backing – and on the ground with – opposing camps. And this certainly led to the possibility of U.S. forces (more likely mercenaries) shooting at each other. Who was the only group to profit from this mess? Cui bono…Ford expands on the four-decade-long history of the U.S.’s creation of Islamic terrorism here:

ISIS did not exist when President Obama took office and put Hillary Clinton in charge at Foggy Bottom. His (and her) regime change in Libya and massive, terroristic pivot to Syria “created” ISIS…the U.S. did not reject the jihadist death cult that became ISIS; rather, the Islamic State divorced itself from the U.S. and its European and royal allies. Yet, it still took the Russian intervention in Syria in September of last year to push Washington to mount more than token air assaults against ISIS.

I hear your voice: Perhaps Obama ended up as a war criminal, but he began with such high ideals. Let’s move on.

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Barry’s Blog # 197: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Eight

OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY

A reader posits: If presidents are so completely bound, can we really blame them for being complicit? Isn’t voicing soul and decency at least superior to abandoning it altogether? Or, as you say, is it better we face the monster unmasked, as we are doing now? These are precisely the inquiries that lead to the kind of soul work – for ourselves and our world – that I’m trying to provoke. And of course, struggling with them is more important than answering them.

Just as with his economic policy appointments, Obama’s initial pick of cold warriors Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton signaled that there would be no change in foreign policy from the Bush years.  He came into office making two promises: to end the Iraq War, which he dismissed as “the stupid war,” and to win in Afghanistan, “the necessary war.” But he retired having been at war longer than any president in U.S. history, and the only president to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.

One could certainly frame his domestic and financial decisions, harmful as they were, as part of the old liberal story, as well-intended failures – a phrase, by the way, that conventional historians used to describe the mad, genocidal atrocity of the Viet Nam war and now use to describe both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But even a cursory investigation of Obama’s foreign policies reveals his true roles – the functions he was originally vetted for – in maintaining the influence of the American empire and restoring faith in American innocence.

Any honest discussion of American foreign policy in this century must begin with 9-11. We don’t need to argue about whether it was an inside job or whether the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the impending attacks; after 15 years you have your own opinions. My own writings on the matter have always tried to focus on its implications for the myth of innocence – how Americans responded to it.

But few can deny that Bush’s crowd happily used the tragedy and manipulated public opinion to support their imperial aims in the Mideast. And few can deny that this included how the “intelligence community” (the same people now put forth as Trump’s noble opponents) lied to justify invading both Afghanistan and Iraq. What did Obama do after inheriting these policies? He served George W. Bush’s third and fourth terms.

Whatever you think about 9-11, it is abundantly clear that Saudi Arabia provided operational and financial support to the hijackers and that the U.S. government – half of that time on Obama’s watch – covered up that fact for fifteen years.

In July of 2016, when the infamous 29 pages on ties between the hijackers and Saudi officials were finally made public,  Obama’s only response was that he stood by the investigation of the 9/11 Commission. And in October, he vetoed the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” that would have made it easier to sue Saudi Arabia for its complicity.  For eight years, he criticized Syrian despotism but ignored Israeli, Saudi and Qatari repression, misogyny and religious intolerance at home and warmongering throughout the region.

How do we re-invigorate outdated myths? In 2012, he put his personal stamp on the narrative of American exceptionalism by announcing a 13-year, $65 million commemoration of the war against Viet Nam, praising the veterans who had been “fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.” So much for learning from the past.

That’s all mere background to his conduct of the War on Terror, which was now being fought not primarily by the regular Army but by high technology and by specialists with no accountability. Nick Turse describes     Obama’s use of “special operations” units whose annual budget approaches $20 billion. Bush had deployed them to around 60 nations; Obama ultimately raised that number to 138:

…a secret force (functionally the president’s private army) cocooned inside the U.S. military – now at almost 70,000 personnel…carry out operations almost entirely unknown to the American taxpayers…far from the scrutiny of the media or meaningful outside oversight of any kind. Everyday, in around 80 or more countries that Special Operations Command will not name, they undertake missions the command refuses to talk about.

Afghanistan:

We have no strategic plan. We never had one. – Anonymous senior military commander.

I have argued that the gatekeepers of the empire vetted Obama to re-invigorate the myth of innocence. Part of that role was to be the symbolic, if seemingly reluctant, face of the empire’s wars. One of his first acts, barely a month after being inaugurated in 2009, was to order a massive troop surge in Afghanistan, after claiming that the surge in Iraq had “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

Let’s get some terminology straightened out. When we hear the phrase “intelligence community”, please substitute “the CIA, which has been overthrowing democracy everywhere for seventy years”. And when we hear about “private defense contractors” we are really being told about mercenaries who are paid far more than regular soldiers.

Tens of thousands of these private contractors remained in Iraq, which was collapsing into civil war. But this would become the new strategy to limit popular resistance at home: fewer American military personnel would be dying. Another early act that year was to convince a Spanish court to stop prosecuting Bush and his team as war criminals. Mark Karlin reminds us that for Afghanistan,

The original impetus was, ostensibly, to punish the Taliban government in the wake of the 9/11 attacks for harboring Al Qaeda. Yet it would be hard to define why we are there now except for the imperatives of U.S. hegemony and military empire.

People get rich from war, legally or otherwise. Lest we forget, Afghanistan is (not was) the longest war in U.S. history. We hear little about it these days because it is overshadowed by conflicts elsewhere – and because there have been more contractors than U.S. troops there since the middle of 2011. Their deaths and injuries are not part of the official count, which accordingly appears smaller than it really is.

117,000 contractors and 88,000 U.S. troops were deployed there in 2012. As of March 2016, there were still approximately 28,600 contractors and 8,700 U.S. troops, despite Obama’s claim in December 2014 that the U.S. military’s combat mission in Afghanistan had come to a “responsible conclusion.” From 2007 to 2015, the U.S. spent roughly $220 billion for private contracts there and in Iraq. By that point, over 1,600 Americans had died in Afghanistan since he had taken office — well over half of all the dead during the entire war – along with countless Afghans. Over 115,000 troops were suffering from traumatic brain injuries and half a million had applied for disability benefits.

Some three million Afghans are refugees. Tens of thousands have attempted to enter Europe, and thousands have drowned trying. The Taliban control about 10% of the population and half of the land, more than at any time since 2001. Only about half of the 1.5 million guns given to the Afghan government can be accounted for. The war killed 3,500 civilians in 2016, the highest toll since 2009. Nation building? The U.S. was spending $100 billion annually on the war and only $2 billion on sustainable development, much of that siphoned off by the corrupt Karzai government.

Those of us old enough to remember the endless “quagmire” of Viet Nam, our loss of innocence about America’s good intentions, and the optimistic statements by U.S. officials right up to the final evacuation observed a succession of NATO commanders – 17 of them – issuing their own pronouncements that “We’re making real progress.”

Why – after having created, funded, supported and trained the Afghan Army for some 15 years – why hasn’t the U.S. handed the war completely over to them? Why are we still there? The answer, of course, is resources, including a potential natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean, as Brzezinski has admitted. A J.P. Morgan mining expert claimed that “Afghanistan could be one of the leading producers of copper, gold, lithium, and iron ore in the world…”

And then there are the drugs. Since the American invasion began, heroin production has increased 40 times. And, since a million people worldwide have died from Afghan heroin since 2001, I invite readers to investigate the long history of the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade.  

In 2009, writes Tariq Ali, NATO’s Secretary General gushed over the possibility of “a permanent NATO presence in a country that borders the ex-Soviet republics, China, Iran, and Pakistan (that) was too good to miss.” In 2010 Gates assured the Afghans, “…we’re not ever leaving at all.” 

The next year even Karzai denounced the Americans: “They’re here for their own purposes, for their own goals.”

Next: Syria, Iraq and ISIS

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Barry’s Blog # 196: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Seven

OBAMA’S ECONOMIC POLICIES

The first thing to understand about Obama is that he was Wall Street’s man from the beginning. He was, after all, the first candidate to turn down public campaign financing, because he didn’t need it. As I mentioned earlier, Goldman Sachs had been his largest campaign contributor in 2008, despite his criticism of “the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street”. He also took huge donations from the defense industry as well as the pharmaceutical industry, which reversed years of supporting Republicans and contributed more than three times as much to him as it did to McCain.

And the most revealing information in the leak (not a hack) of the DNC emails is that prior to that election, Citigroup executive Michael Froman sent a list of suggested cabinet appointees to John Podesta. Obama appointed nearly everyone on the list, including free marketeers Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, all three of whom had been involved in previous policies, including deregulation, that had led to the financial crisis. c_11262008_520Citigroup itself became the recipient (over $300 billion) of the largest government bailout and Froman became U.S. trade representative. Obama made GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt his chief outside economic advisor even as GE was outsourcing jobs and cutting benefits.

Certainly, no one should be surprised that, despite massive public support for jailing the perpetrators,  no one was indicted, let alone jailed. Nor should we be surprised that those same banks that Obama declared “too big to fail” are now much larger and much more likely to create the next financial crash. too-big-to-fail-2

Early on, he called a meeting of banking executives. “The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability,” one of them told Ron Suskind in his book Confidence Men. “At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” This included defying Congress to avoid limiting executive pay, even to those companies receiving bailout funds. And with those funds they could make money with no risk, by lending back to the Treasury. Quickly, their compensation reached record levels, especially among hedge fund managers.

In 2010 a member of an independent congressional oversight panel told Treasury officials: “We can either have a rational resolution to the foreclosure crisis, or we can preserve the capital structure of the banks. We can’t do both.” They chose the latter, beginning by extending Bush’s tax cuts. The stimulus program led to a dubious “recovery” that benefited almost exclusively the top one percent. For the rest, wages and benefits declined, a fact that Trump would shape into his own narrative later. By 2011, the one percent had more wealth than the bottom 90%. And although 58% of the country wanted the government to help stop foreclosures, Obama did nothing. in-here-somewhere

I suggested in Chapter Eight of my book that in 2008 Obama, Wall Street’s candidate, beat McCain, the oil industry’s man. Obama did respond to liberal pressure and blocked the Keystone and (temporarily) Dakota Access pipelines. But the energy titans are equal partners in the Deep State, and Obama was certainly no enemy to them, as he allowed them to charge excessive rates and blessed them with billions in tax breaks.

I certainly don’t pretend to understand finance. But writers such as Michael Gray  claim that rather than using the term “Great Recession,”

…The years 2008 through 2015 should be known as the Great Fleecing. During that time period the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world occurred. Some $4.5 trillion was given to Wall Street banks with the American people picking up the IOU and getting little more than working ATMs for the misery.

Almost all of that money, of course, went to the ultra-rich.  And, as conservatives always promise, did they invest in job-creating industries on American soil? No, they did what the rich always do; they took advantage of the massive network of global tax evasion detailed in 2016’s “Panama Papers”. Rebecca Wilkins of Citizens for Tax Justice, says:

A tax haven…has one of three characteristics: It has no income tax or a very low-rate income tax; it has bank secrecy laws; and it has a history of noncooperation with other countries on exchanging information about tax matters…Panama has all three of those…They’re probably the worst.

A 2012 report by the British Tax Justice Network estimated that unreported tax havens worldwide shelter between $21 and $32 trillion. Apparently the rich wanted even more. Obama’s Panama Free Trade Agreement of 2011 actually encouraged corporations to thwart efforts by regulatory agencies to combat financial secrecy in tax haven countries. Major financial firms already supported by taxpayer bailouts praised the deal, which made it easier for them to set up offshore bank accounts and avoid paying many taxes altogether.

Even among the corporate stooges in Congress, it turned out that not enough of them could stomach Obama’s attempt to force the Trans-Pacific Partnership down the nation’s throat. This truly terrible giveaway to the rich, negotiated in secrecy, would have permitted Big Business to sue the U.S. and eleven other governments before a panel of three corporate lawyers that could award unlimited sums, including for loss of future expected profits if they claimed U.S. policies might violate the new entitlements.

If this monstrosity had ever come up for a vote, Obama would have had to ally himself with the Republicans against his own party. In the election, Clinton’s mild but transparently false opposition to something she herself had crafted was another factor in her loss to Trump, who (whatever you think of him) accurately criticized it as yet another job killer.

The bailout of the auto industry (actually, only General Motors and Chrysler) is a hugely complicated issue and open to much interpretation, as is Obama’s claim that “The auto companies have now repaid taxpayers every dime and more…”, as well as his claim that a million and a half jobs were saved. Many certainly were saved, but many just as certainly would have transferred over to Toyota and the several other companies that did not need government assistance. Why not? Because with the exception of Ford, they hadn’t put all their chips on gas-guzzling SUVs.

And all of the Asian and European automakers had greatly improved their technology, something in which the American companies had shown little interest over the decades. The implications: perhaps saving those dinosaurs was worth it, but at base, Obama richly rewarded two giant companies (and their stockholders) for their bad business practices and effectively punished others for their good business practices.

Did wrecking the middle class and increasing the disparity between rich and poor to the greatest point since the 1930s (some would say the 1880s) amount to bad business practices? As I implied above, that money didn’t just go away. Much of it went over to the other side of the ledger. Although this is not entirely Obama’s responsibility, the National Debt did increase under his watch from about $10 trillion to about $20 trillion. It’s another vastly complicated question, but it is instructive to ask just who profits – cui bono? – when the debt increases. After all, it’s reasonable to assume that whenever something happens at the federal level, somebody is profiting.

At the very least, the administration and the Congress profit, because deficits are a way of hiding the fact that military spending and reducing taxes have been bankrupting the nation ever since the Viet Nam war. In this sense, the debt amounts to nothing more than future taxation, a mortgage cast upon future taxpayers – our grandchildren – and politicians not currently in office. And after foreign nations such as China, much of the debt, some 15%, is held by private banks and investors. Mutual funds alone hold more than $1 trillion in Treasury debt. So the bottom line, so to speak, is that only those (increasingly few) who can afford to invest in the stock market get to play with that money. Obama didn’t create this shell game, but he did nothing to reform it.

Next: Foreign policy.

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Barry’s Blog # 195: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Six

Domestic Policies, Continued:

5 – The Environment

Obama quoted environmental writers such as Michael Pollan and visibly countered the lunatic Republican denial of global warming. obama-solar-panels.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smart But soon it was clear that he was subtly supporting much of the agenda of the oil and petrochemical industries. In 2010 the administration began an ambitious antitrust initiative against Big Food but soon tabled the motion. “Whenever the Obamas seriously poked at Big Food,” writes Pollan, “they were quickly outlobbied and outgunned.” In 2013 Obama signed the corporate giveaway derisively known as the “Monsanto Protection Act” and the FDA decided to offer only voluntary guidelines for reducing antibiotic use by the meat industry.

From 2010 to 2014 (literally during the Deepwater Horizon disaster), his administration approved more than 1,500 permit applications for offshore drilling plans that included fracking at hundreds of wells across the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators issued more than 300 “categorical exclusions” to exempt such plans from environmental reviews, and backed away from challenging greenhouse emissions by Big Agriculture. And his administration poured money into developments that will push the planet even closer to climate disaster. Through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, it spent $34 billion supporting 70 fossil fuel projects around the world.

In 2016 he rolled over completely. In July he signed a law overturning state laws that labeled GMO foods. In September the administration quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million more acres for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and weakened the Endangered Species Act. In October he publicly made the ludicrous claim that fracking will lower green house gas emissions.

And in a little-known but potentially significant Children’s Lawsuit over Climate Change, his Justice Department argued in federal court alongside attorneys from the fossil fuel industry that the children had no legally defensible harm on which to base their claims. Regardless, in November, the judge allowed the case to proceed.

 

6 – The Supreme Court

Granted, Obama did the right thing – that is, he satisfied his feminist supporters – by nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the court. But when he finally had the chance to establish the legacy of a liberal majority in 2016, his choice to replace the Neanderthal Antonin Scalia was the Republican “centrist” Merrick Garland.

 

7 – Veteran Affairs

Obama inherited another huge problem and did increase funding for veterans’ healthcare. But in 2013, when over 300,000 claims to the VA were still pending for 125 days or more, the VA stopped publishing casualty statistics. Furthermore, when taking into coU.S. President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veterans Day, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginiansideration all VA claims, including those in which veterans died waiting for a decision, those stuck in appeals and award adjustment, the VA’s inventory of claims is about 1.3 million.

 

8 – Education

Arne Duncan, Obama’s first choice for Secretary of Education, drew praise, tellingly, from Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and David Brooks because he was an advocate of privatization. Here we have a topic where we can focus on Mark Twain’s question: policies generated out of ignorance, or deliberately destructive? From the first perspective, “Common Core”, “Race to the Top” (which pitted states against each other in a competition for desperately needed money and encouraged administrators to privatize their schools) and the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” were simply wrong, if naïve, reformulations of Bush’s “No child Left Behind.” HAIPHONG_VultureCapitalists

Race to the Top funds favored districts that fired the most teachers, closed the most schools, and opened the most charters. These funds, more often than not, went directly into the hands of operators running charter schools that, with no governmental oversight, often turned out to be for-profit education scams. Meanwhile, the number of Black teachers in cities like Chicago declined dramatically.

Concerned teachers describe all of this as aspects of the “Education Industrial Complex,” with its standardized tests, expensive consultants, con artists and for-profit schooling. Why, they ask, do we still run schools as if they were factories? Why do we have charter schools? Bruce Dixon writes:

The Obama administration spent $4 billion in federal stimulus money…to incentivize the closing of thousands of so-called “underperforming public schools” mostly in black and poor communities. The near-complete absence of public accountability on the part of charter schools predictably ushered in a nationwide white collar crime wave, as charter school operators, their officers, contractors and their sugar daddy investors scrambled for shares of the cash that used to go to public education.

This question brings us to the second option – deliberately destructive – and ultimately into the world of myth. In this case, the stories are the toxic mimic of initiation, which I described in Chapter Five of my book, and the sacrifice of the children, which I wrote about in Chapters Six and Ten.

We still run schools as if they were factories because capitalism intends the vast majority of children to work in factories – if any factories still exist – and to be compliant consumers of the products those factories produce. American public education has had that intention for 140 years, and Obama’s tinkering simply condemned another generation of children to be dumbed down out of any sense of being citizens, out of any sense of self-worth, out of any sense of trust in their elders.

 

9 – Poverty, Jobs and the Safety Net

American theology is very clear on this issue: the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor, because as individuals they lack moral standards; and systemic deficiencies have nothing to do with their condition. Helping them simply reinforces their dependency on government, and disciplining them with only the barest of assistance (relative to all European nations) is the only way to make them take responsibility for themselves. And to judge by the policies of recent presidents, liberals subscribe to this theology of misery nearly as fully as conservatives do.

Obama inherited an economic mess from Bush and poverty was rising quickly. But he merely tinkered with an essentially conservative pattern of welfare reform that had actually begun under Clinton: handing welfare over to the states, limiting the time people could receive assistance and forcing them to work for their welfare in an economy that had no new jobs to offer them other than dead-end “McJobs.”

In 2014 he signed a bill that cut food stamps by $9 billion. Despite his stimulus plan, by the end of his second term, 43 million Americans (23 million households) were still on food stamps and 14.5 % were officially in poverty. The real number, of course, is far higher. Consider that a two-adult, two-child household making $25,000 per year (or with four children, making $33,000/year) is above that official threshold, and that some researchers claim that well over 50% of the population lives on an annual income of $30,000 or less.

The simple fact is that Welfare reform reduced the numbers by kicking people off the rolls, not by employing them. Now, more and more have neither welfare nor work. Jordan Weissman writes:

Old-school welfare used to assist the vast majority of impoverished families. Workfare (or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) reaches just about a quarter of them…we have a half-functioning economy, and one of our safety-net programs for the poorest families has been designed in order to keep as many of them out as possible.

Just before the 2016 election, Obama claimed, “We turned a recession into a record streak of job growth.” In December he bragged that his policies had “added more than 15 million new jobs… We cut unemployment in half, years before a lot of economists thought we would.” Actually, ten million jobs were created – only two-thirds of his claim, and an astonishingly 94% of them were temporary or part-time. According to Investing.com,

Female workers suffered most heavily…as work in traditionally feminine fields, like education and medicine, declined…the proportion of workers throughout the U.S., during the Obama era, who were working in these kinds of temporary jobs, increased from 10.7% of the population to 15.8%…The disappearance of conventional full-time work, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work, has hit every demographic…Under Obama, 1 million fewer workers, overall, are working than before the beginning of the Great Recession.

The palpably mendacious, official unemployment figures that do include those “McJobs” do not include those who went on Social Security early because they couldn’t find work after the recession, the 2.2 million people in prison, or the vast numbers of “permanently discouraged” who’ve given up looking for work.

The actual rate of US unemployment is close to 25%. A record 95 million adults are not in the labor force, up from 80 million when Obama took office. No one really knows how many have full-time, well paid, secure – not to mention meaningful or satisfying – jobs. But clearly the lack of them was a major factor in the rise of Trump. A survey cited by Forbes Magazine at the beginning of 2016 indicated that over half of Americans had less then $1,000 to their name.

 

10 – Race

The final aspect of Obama’s domestic policies is race. Certainly, he must at least have addressed the condition of his most basic constituency, people who had suffered terribly under Bush (and equally under Clinton). Of course, the rise of Trump and his ilk is partially a reaction to the presence of an African-American president. In this sense, it certainly isn’t Obama’s fault. But it also reflects mass disillusionment and anger at an economy that Obama’s financial backers helped destroy. And it certainly reflects a broad disengagement from politics and/or search for right-wing heroes that stems from the Democratic Party’s turn to the right, something set into motion twenty-five years ago by the Clintons and furthered by Obama.

The economic downturn affected people of color far more than it did whites, and the feeble recovery did little to change this situation. Blacks with college degrees still have unemployment rates nearly as high as white high school graduates. Blacks with some college education still have higher rates than white high school dropouts. At each level of education, the black unemployment rate remains twice as high as the white rate. Blacks working full time have lower levels of wealth than unemployed whites.

Indeed, their relative economic position on virtually all indicators has not improved since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2013 black households had one-thirteenth of the median wealth of median white households. Forty percent of black children are growing up in poverty. One of every eight prisoners in the world is an African-American.

One could, of course, argue that Obama could do little to affect the broader conditions of last-stage capitalism, especially with Republicans constantly obstructing him. But Obama repeatedly made it clear that he shared their basic “blame the victim” philosophy. This perspective, writes William A. Darity Jr., argues that

…an important factor explaining racial economic disparities is self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks themselves. And Barack Obama continuously has trafficked in…the tropes of black dysfunction. Either he is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the evidence that undercuts the black behavioral deficiency narrative…And it has been damaging to have Barack Obama, a black man speaking from the authoritative platform of the presidency, reinforce the widely held belief that racial inequality in the United States is, in large measure, the direct responsibility of black folk.

This prejudice underlay Obama’s lack of interest in universal, systemic dysfunction or in bold policies that might have confronted the fundamental causes of racial disparity, such as a public-sector employment guarantee for all Americans, or significant investment in job-rich alternative energies. By contrast, one of the functions the gatekeepers vetted Obama to perform was, in Glen Ford’s words, “the biggest escalation in the history of the one-sided war against Black America:”

Obama is the biggest domestic war hawk in the history of the United States – bigger than Bush, Clinton and all his predecessors…What separates the current era of mass Black incarceration, and all of its attendant police atrocities, from the period before the 1960s, is that the “New Jim Crow” has been financed and directed by the federal government. In previous eras, mass incarceration was a state affair. However, since passage of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1968, the feds have made suppression of Black people a national priority, directing, coordinating and financing a vast expansion and militarization of local police, as well as a seven-fold increase in per-capital prison capacity…a war (Obama) escalated before the emergence of a new Black movement, rather than in response to it.

The value of military weapons, gear and equipment transferred to local police never exceeded $34 million annually until 2010, Obama’s second year, when it leaped to $91 million. By 2014, the year that Michael Brown was killed, Obama was sending $787 million a year in battlefield weaponry to local cops. He oversaw a 24-fold increase in the militarization of the police between 2008 and 2014. Even with the scale-back announced in 2015, Obama still managed to transfer $459 million – 14 times as much as Bush had gifted to the local police at his high point year of 2008. They proceeded to kill approximately 10,000 people, most of them black and Latino.

In February 2016 Black Lives Matter founder Aislinn Pulley declined an invitation to the White House:

I was under the impression that a meeting was being organized to facilitate a genuine exchange on the matters facing millions of Black and Brown people in the United States. Instead, (it) was basically a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president. I could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it.

As cops were killing thousands of Blacks – 1134 of them in 2015 alone – Obama granted them immunity from federal prosecution. His second Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the she would not require police to keep statistics of their murder victims.

That same year the administration successfully opposed full voting rights for Samoans, citing the 1901 Insular Acts. As a result, four million Americans living in Puerto Rico (with a greater population than 21 U.S. states), Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands – almost all of them people of color – were prevented from voting for President.

Don’t let this last fact pass by without considering the implications. Had an African-American, Democratic President not taken this position, not only would Trump have lost but Clinton, regardless of the widespread computer fraud, would certainly have won in a major landslide. The most generous explanation is that the Democratic power elite did not want to empower a large number of progressive voters and assumed that she would win without them. The least generous is that they – Barack Obama – preferred to lose the Presidency (and the Congress and the Supreme Court) rather than empower people of color.

After the election, Obama announced that the main focus of his political activity after leaving office would be to support a campaign headed by Eric Holder. It would focus on reforming the gerrymandering that had resulted in Republican control at the local level (and, they might have added, the mass voter suppression that, rather than Russian hacking, actually had elected Trump). This news was particularly galling to black activists. Since the reactionary 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting the enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Democrats had not introduced a single bill in Congress that might have mitigated the impact of the decision.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 194: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Five

OBAMA’S DOMESTIC POLICIES

 1 – Immigration:  

Bill Clinton began the hysteria back in 1996, when he greatly expanded the number of crimes that could lead to forced removal from the US. By 2008, immigrant bashing had become an easy way for any president to deflect attention from more basic economic issues.

Obama declared himself the “champion in chief” of immigration law reform. However, under his watch, immigration policy and the scapegoating of the “Other” only grew harsher. Indeed, disappointed Latino activists soon called him the “Deporter-In-Chief” because he was ejecting people at a higher rate than any previous president. In 2010 Obama invested $600 million in border militarization, deploying an extra 1,500 border patrol agents. During his first five years, he deported two million people, more than during Bush’s entire eight years. By 2014, America was expelling illegal immigrants at nine times the rate of 20 years before, some 400,000 per year, even though fewer people were attempting to enter the country. But this was a very selective process. Simultaneously, Obama maintained the Cold War policy that uncritically accepted tens of thousands of Cubans.

His response to the violent displacement of people across Central America – greatly exacerbated by his coup in Honduras – was mass incarceration of mothers and their children. Between October 2013 and January 2015, the government filed cases against 60,000 minors, over 7,000 of whom were deported without a court hearing. The numbers of the deported do not include those who were refused entry at the border, self-deported due to the climate of fear or died trying to reach safe haven. Sarah Lazare writes:

The spike in deportations has been coupled with the continuation of the country’s unrivaled prison industrial complex. Shortly after Obama was elected, he expanded the so-called “Secure Communities” program created under George W. Bush…(which) relied on collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement to target undocumented people ensnared in the criminal justice system and labeled “criminals.” The program has worsened racial profiling and escalated the criminalization and deportation of undocumented people across the United States…Under George W. Bush, the program existed in only 14 counties. In 2009, that number ballooned to 88. By 2012, it was ubiquitous across the country. Thanks to sustained grassroots resistance led by the communities targeted, Obama announced in 2014 that he was ending the program. But its replacement—the Priority Enforcement Program—still relies on the targeting of people caught in the prison industrial complex.

As recently as 2016, DHS was significantly escalating raids targeting immigrants, migrants and refugees primarily from Central American countries. And the great irony is that all of the programs that Obama put in place – the Priority Enforcement Program, the raids and home invasions, the deportation of children and female abuse victims and a massively expanded Department of Homeland Security – will be passed on to Trump. 

 

2 – Civil liberties, Surveillance, Secrecy, Transparency:

Obama’s administration would be “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” Instead, it became the least transparent in history and became the most powerful surveillance state the world has ever seen. In 2010 the FBI raided the homes of 20 anti-war activists without ever charging them with crimes. Obama offered no resistance when Congress extended the Patriot Act in 2011. In 2012 he signed a five year extension of the FISA Amendments Act which continues to give intelligence agencies the right to wiretap telephone calls and emails of private citizens. In his first two years, wiretaps increased by 34 percent.

He waged an unprecedented, aggressive war against whistleblowers and leakers, including nine prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act – more than double those under all previous presidents combined. 

His administration sentenced whistleblowers to 31 times the jail time of all prior administrations combined. It invoked the “state secrets privilege” to halt anti-torture lawsuits, protect extraordinary rendition (kidnapping) and illegal wiretapping and keep classified dozens of opinions, memos and letters on national security issues, as well as over 800 international agreements and an 11,000-document cache of government communications relating to financial policy. It censored government files or outright denied access to them under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act at higher rates than Bush had.

The National Security apparatus expanded rapidly. By 2010, over a million people with top-security clearances operated out of some 1,300 government organizations in over 10,000 U.S. locations, alongside 2,000 private security companies, spending over $75 billion.

In its final year, Obama reinstated the Asset Forfeiture Fund’s “equitable sharing” program that allows police to seize private assets, often without any proof of wrongdoing, and keep all or most of the proceeds. The FBI instructed high schools across the nation to report students who in any way criticize government policies. He granted the National Security Agency wider powers to share intercepted surveillance data with 16 other government agencies. The “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act” created a kind of Ministry of Truth – the Global Engagement Center. Even though the FBI would eventually turn on Clinton, Obama secretly enabled it to assume an importance and influence it had not wielded since J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972.

The FBI then proceeded to wage an immense and mostly fabricated war on potential domestic terrorists to entrap dozens of people (many of whom were mentally ill and highly suggestible). Among 158 defendants charged after FBI sting operations, it turned out that 49 had been snared in plots instigated by one of 15,000 agents provocateur controlled by the FBI. If Trump decides to imprison a whistle-blower for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the FBI to spy on a journalist, he will have Obama to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power.

3 – Healthcare:

The argument about the relative merits of the ACA vs the massively popular single payer plan, and what was politically achievable, is complex. But the fact remains that when Obama had a chance to set the terms of the health insurance debate, to do what any negotiator would do – to ask for more than he’d actually settle for – he chose to bargain from the middle and ask only for the mildest of alternatives, a market-based plan that the insurance companies approved of, one that had first been generated by Republicans. It mandated coverage but left Medicare expansion up to the states. It shifted health care costs from corporations and the state to individuals, with corporations slashing coverage and workers forced to pay exorbitant prices for substandard care. “From its very roots,” writes Danny Haiphong,

…the ACA was destined to consolidate the corporate insurance and pharmaceutical industry’s control over U.S. healthcare…The only winners from ACA have been the “healthcare” monopolies. More people than ever are now covered under expensive ACA plans, leading to a predictable surge in profits.

For the first time since the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1993, U.S. life expectancy fell between 2014 and 2015 due to rising adult mortality from drug overdoses, suicides and other manifestations of social distress.

Under Obama the corruption in three of the nation’s most important regulatory agencies – The FDA, the CDC and the NIH – metastasized to the point where all three devolved into mere shills for the Pharmaceutical industry, to the point where the editor of The Lancet wrote, “Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue,” and the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine wrote, “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published…” Rather than countering the massive financial pressure of the industry, he picked a Big-Pharma salesman, Robert Califf, to head the FDA.

As late as 2016, despite massive public support and consistent evidence of the value of medical Marijuana, the DEA refused to loosen restrictions on its use. Indeed, in one of its final rulings under Obama, it classified CBD oil – the non-psychoactive part of the plant – as a “schedule 1 drug,” in the same category as heroin, which had caused a tripling of overdose deaths in the previous four years. In January 2017 Obama commuted the sentences of a couple hundred pot-related sentences, while leaving several hundred thousand non-violent offenders in prison.

 

4 – Crime, Violence, Prisons:

This discussion has two primary categories: those who suffer under the vagaries of the poverty-prison-industrial complex, and those in positions of power and influence who have never been punished.

After the crash of 1929, the head of the New York Stock Exchange went to jail. In the 1980s the savings-and-loan scandals produced over 1,000 prosecutions. By contrast, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) recommended Wall Street executives for prosecution – people who’d been responsible for the crash of 2008 and the home mortgage scandal – but Obama’s Justice Department neglected to take on any of these cases. Indeed, he appointed some of them to his cabinet.

Cui bono – follow the money: The banking industry spent over $100 million lobbying politicians and regulators in only the first half of 2011. Three years before, Goldman Sachs, the primary symbol of the stench at the base of the financial industry, had been Obama’s largest campaign contributor. Attorney General Eric Holder predictably focused on collecting settlements, dime on the dollar, rather than seeking indictments.

After leaving government, Holder rejoined his old law firm, which represents some of the financial institutions he’d declined to prosecute. As a result of this kid-glove treatment, the banks that Obama declared “too big to fail” are now much larger, more confidant of having any government restrictions upon them and much more prone to cause a future financial crash. Several of the worst of these criminals are now serving under Trump, and Jeff Sessions will feel zero motivation to prosecute or even seek settlements. “In eight years,” wrote Bruce Dixon, “Democrat Barack Obama has gone further to protect criminal banksters and their investors than any Republican dared go before him.”

This pattern is entirely consistent with another one. Over a hundred detainees died while in U.S. custody. But, despite his campaign vows to bring the torturers of Bush’s War on Terror to justice, President Obama soon and repeatedly stated that the country needed to look forward rather than backward. “Throughout the first several months of his presidency,” writes Greenwald, “his top political aides…publicly – and inappropriately – pressured the justice department to refrain from any criminal investigations.”

Soon enough, Obama granted immunity to these thugs. As a result, no one in the U.S. government paid any price for the systematic worldwide torture regime that America implemented and maintained for close to a decade. Republican obfuscation? “Obama himself vigorously opposed and succeeded in killing even a congressional investigation into the torture regime at a time when his party controlled both houses of Congress.”

All this occurred, by the way, as America continued to incarcerate a higher percentage of its people – over half of them minorities – than any other nation. To be fair, the federal prison population shrunk slightly. The main factor was the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced crack cocaine penalties (from 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to a more civilized 18-to 1). Obama supported the FSA. But so did almost every member of Congress, even Jeff Sessions. It would have passed even if he’d vetoed it. It’s an old ploy: take credit for something you had nothing to do with.

Obama spoke often and eloquently about changing the culture of mass incarceration and racial profiling, but the national need to maintain a population of scapegoats that mirrored the external Other of terrorism ensured that he actually attempted little to change it. This was certainly the case with gun violence: plenty of talk, almost no concrete initiatives. Of course the Republicans resisted him at every step – except for the first two years, when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.

Indeed, in his first term, prior to the tearful scenes of his last years, he bragged about expanding the rights of gun owners. His actions earned him an “F” from the Brady Center for Gun Violence in 2010 for “extraordinary silence and passivity” on gun control. Devin Dwyer concludes, “In spite of six major shootings on his watch, Obama has not publicly pushed for a renewal of an assault weapons ban or new restrictions on high-capacity magazines.”

Next: Five more categories of domestic policy.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 193: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Four

In the years since my book was published I’ve written many blogs about Barack Obama. How could I not? He was anointed King for a while in this version of our national myth. In each essay I attempted to temper my expectations as well as my growing anger and grief, with a broader, mythological perspective and more questions than answers. What story are we in? What story calls to us? I invite interested readers to review them:

Blog # 9: The Presidential Dilemma

Blog # 17: The Face of the Empire

Blog # 38: Obama and the Myth of Innocence

Blog # 40: The Ritual of the (2012) Presidential Debates:

Blog # 46: Obama’s Tears

Blog # 69: The Con Man: An American Archetype, Part Two

Blog # 70: Obama’s War on Syria

Blog # 71: The Con-Man, Part Three

Earlier, I listed five generalized, potential assessments of Obama, the first four of which assumed that he (that is, his carefully crafted image) was essentially of a good man who was limited by either his own incompetence or by a corrupt or completely broken political system. The fifth offered a darker view of the con-man.

Now, after eight years of speculations, I have to suggest another possible grade. It would begin by observing something I missed back in 2010, that Obama’s choices for his top national security advisers had been praised by none other than the butcher of Viet Nam, Guatemala, Chile and East Timor, Henry Kissinger.

Myth # 6 – Bombs Away! The Pentagon’s man.

The United States remains involved – let’s stop being nice – a more appropriate word is complicit – in every significant conflict in the world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, Ukraine, Turkey, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Albania, Poland, Romania, Venezuela, Honduras, Belize, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, Korea, Haiti, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia, Mali, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and many, many other countries.

If you don’t know that American special operations forces are operating in 138 countries (double the number during the Bush years), or that the U.S. dropped over 26,000 bombs on Muslim countries in 2016, or that Obama’s drone strikes have killed over 300 people at wedding parties alone,

     

or that the U.S. has built airbases inside Syria – a sovereign nation – you haven’t been paying attention. And why should you? The President has such lovely daughters.

I’m suggesting that every President at least since Truman has served above all as a spokesperson – a press secretary – for the national security state, and that this state exists for six reasons:

1 – To protect U.S. corporations and ensure control of worldwide energy supplies.

2 – To enrich the defense industry by provoking a state of constant war in as many places as possible. As George Orwell supposedly said, “the war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.”

3 – To maintain a state of perpetual fear in the American population.

4 – To retain the support of certain voting blocs and maintain the illusion of democratic processes.

5 – To expand itself, its power, its budget and its influence infinitely.

6 – To provoke regular opportunities for the ritual, willing sacrifice of large numbers of young Americans. It is absolutely critical to understand this essentially mythic and religious dimension of the problem, so clearly and bluntly articulated by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in their short but essential book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.

For example, continuing the decades-long demonization of both Cuba and Iran into the sixth year of his presidency was an example of (2), (3) and (4). But reducing sanctions and opening up trade with those two nations exemplified (1) because Big Business coveted those markets, not because it was the right thing to do, and certainly not because of the pressure of public opinion. Charles Hugh Smith writes:

The Deep State requires relatively little of elected officials, even the President. A rubber stamp of existing policies is the primary requirement…But the Deep State prefers a leader that can successfully sell the Deep State’s agenda to the American public.

For a more detailed understanding of the Deep State, read Peter Dale Scott here.

Perhaps “Propagandist-in Chief” is an even better description of the function of the President. As C.J. Hopkins writes:

…official propaganda is not designed to deceive the public (no more than the speeches in an actor’s script are intended to deceive the actor who speaks them). It is designed to be absorbed and repeated, no matter how implausible or preposterous it might be. Actually, it is often most effective when those who are forced to robotically repeat it know that it is utter nonsense, as the humiliation of having to do so cements their allegiance to the ruling classes…The point is to draw…a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative… Conforming does not require belief. It requires allegiance and rote obedience.

Granted again and again: Obama inherited the failures of the Bush administration (were they failures in terms of the six categories above?), but we are talking about policies that have remained essentially unchanged for decades, regardless of which of the major parties appears to be running things. And eventually we have to honestly confront the difference between policies that failed, policies wrecked by the GOP opposition, and non-mistakes: deliberately conceived policies that directly or indirectly caused the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of people. And we are the point in assessing Obama where we cross the line from Mark Twain’s “imbeciles who really mean it” to “smart people who are putting us on.”

As Noam Chomsky has taught for fifty years – and as most liberals still staunchly and innocently refuse to admit – the United States (along with its client states, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) is the primary terrorist state in the world. To not begin any discussion of American politics by acknowledging this fact in is to be either complicit or ignorant. Or both. Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy? A: I don’t know and I don’t care. And to not at least suggest that the War on Terror has been a colossal fraud is to ignore the evidence that has been mounting from start to non-finish.

It is not quibbling to point out that Obama followed all of his recent predecessors in supporting the most brutal dictatorships on the planet. But why didn’t his wars provoke massive public outcry? Four reasons:

1 – He kept the (American) body count relatively low through the use of mercenaries (otherwise known as “civilian contractors”), drones and long-distance air bombings.

2 – The Pentagon was not stupid enough to demand that he re-introduce the draft.

3 – Obama followed every President since Lyndon Johnson and colluded with Congress to not raise taxes to pay for his wars, choosing instead to pass the costs onto future generations.

3 – Let’s be honest here. How could liberals criticize a Black president, even when he debased the notion of liberalism? The peace movement collapsed, having diverted its attention to the Presidential election, and never recovered its enthusiasm.

A trade-off, perhaps? Conventional political science will counter that a liberal president must accede to such traditional militarism and waste in order to pursue minor, incremental progress in domestic affairs. And we must certainly acknowledge the Republican determination to stall any of his projects. Yes, and – what about all those billions that the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, etc, lavished upon right-wing media? Obama could have leveled the playing field with one stroke of his pen by enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, he eliminated it.

I really want to stress here that this essay is not about gratuitous bashing, and it’s not about “I told you so.” My business is to invite readers to get comfortable inhabiting the space between the polar opposites. What are those opposites? One is the possibility of who we might become and the new stories struggling to be born. The other is who we are now as a culture, and the leaders who embody our old, toxic stories. But to open ourselves to the former, we simply must drop our default mode of naiveté, idealization and innocence and unblinkingly acknowledge the depths of the latter.

This is especially important as the fascist Trump consolidates power. Ever since the election, liberal media (both news and social) have been flooded with attempts to de-legitimize the new president. He certainly deserves such ill treatment; don’t get me wrong. But the shadow of this phenomenon is the desperate attempt of liberals to shore up their sense that Clinton and the old dinosaur establishment of the Democratic Party are more progressive and less corrupt than the Republicans, and to avoid real self-examination.

These efforts, in other words, are attempts to convince ourselves of the legitimacy of our own stories about ourselves. They are forms of cognitive dissonance, ways in which we resist the encroachment of reality. And one of the primary ways liberals do this is by praising the accomplishments of the outgoing King and contrasting his ideals, his morals, his family and his standards of decency – in other words, his brand – with that of the barbarian who has entered the castle.

And in a spirit of fairness, before I offer an unfortunate and extended litany intended to disabuse readers of such innocent fantasies, here is an article that purports to list some 400 of Obama’s accomplishments  despite eight years of Republican obstruction. Some of the items are indeed laudable, even exemplary – after all, he did have a population to serve and favors to pay. Some were efforts that would have passed without his support or were clearly in the interests of powerful players. Others were obviously watered down, unfunded and punchless, perhaps deliberately so. Still others had no financial impact on established power interests and could then be pursued with few political costs. Every politician does this.

Still others amount to no more than rhetoric intended to temporarily please liberal constituencies. Remember John Mitchell: Watch what we do, not what we say.

Were there differences with the Republicans? Of course, especially on abortion rights and global warming. After that, however, it gets a bit hazy. Standing outside the myth of American Innocence, we might well admit that the two major parties, at least when it comes to imperial pretentions, are nearly indistinguishable. Both Obama and the Clintons showed that they were as willing to overthrow democracy in the Third World as Trump will be. It really is possible that the 2016 election was between the party that wants to make war on Russia and the party that wants to make war on China.

And here we discover the precise nature of the con: “If the Bush-Cheney administration were doing this to us,” wrote Bruce Dixon, “we’d be out in the streets over it.”

I’m not denying that Obama pushed through some mild, incrementally positive changes. The ruling classes understand the need to do this. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. And I’m fully aware of how much time and money the Republicans invested in obstruction – sixty attempts to repeal Obamacare alone – but at some point we have to turn our gaze away from that scenario and ask about darker intentions. Or, as I’ve been suggesting, forget intentions. Look only at actions. We’ll look first at domestic policies, then financial, then foreign.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 192: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Three

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it. – Mark Twain

I’ve listed four perspectives from which we grade Obama, beginning with the most idealistic (that is, our most idealistic – and innocent – projections) and moving toward what some might call more cynical, or realistic. Let’s continue.

Myth # 5 – No intentions whatsoever, except to survive. In this story, Obama was simply the latest in a very long line of narcissists of overweening ambition who had long ago sold their souls to serve as spokespersons and salesmen for major power interests.

To disagree with this perspective is to disagree with this one: In our broken democracy, no one is considered for serious, well-funded candidacy, least of all a Black person, without being exhaustively vetted by the power brokers. The few who slip past the gatekeepers are easily marginalized, such as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, or abandoned, such as George McGovern and Bernie Sanders (as for Trump: he’ll roll over or he’ll be rolled over.) The title of this story is Survivor.

Our gatekeepers do value the continuance of society’s values, at least to the extent of perpetuating the dominance of their social class. To that goal, their searchlights always probe the graduating classes of the major universities in what amounts to the first of many stages in which promising, charismatic, energetic and extremely ambitious young men are vetted for future leadership roles. These are men who show the potential of being able to carry the “King” projections of the people. In this light, we note that shortly after college Obama worked for a firm (he doesn’t mention it by name in his autobiography) called “Business International Corporation,” which even the New York Times has acknowledged as having long-time connections to CIA covert operations.

Years later, like every president since Franklin Roosevelt except for Jimmie Carter (and Carter only as an ex-president), Obama became a master of political symbolism and rhetoric who temporarily satisfied his base supporters as a stiff drink briefly reduces an alcoholic’s fever. In an age of really crazy talk, his image emanated calmness, rationality, eloquence and intellectual curiosity tempered by sincerity, compassion and even the willingness to weep in public.

His image: He and his family held the King projections of liberals better than any president since John Kennedy. This is no small thing. obamas-on-balcony

And, unlike JFK, this King who began as a community organizer could hang with us jes’ folks: shooting jump shots, sipping beer and singing Sweet Home Chicago. He was one of us, after all! la-et-st-obama-ellen-degeneres-visit-dancing-20160210 He had both charm and genuine charisma, especially in comparison to the grey-suit country clubbers, religious hucksters and shameless bigots of the Republican Clown Car. My God, he quoted Yeats!

He was a con-man. As Glen Ford wrote, he was consistently not the lesser but merely the “smarter” of two evils.

Mythology teaches us to look at the images as much or more than the words. In American popular culture the image is the brand, and Brand Obama was very appealing. This doesn’t mean that he pretended to be who he is; what you saw is what you got. He was so convincing (and hence so abhorrent to the Clown Car) because, like Trump, he was his brand. But it was still a brand that was created, developed and vetted to appeal to you.

Chris Hedges reminds us about branding in America:

Politicians are little more than brands. They sell skillfully manufactured personalities. These artificial personalities are used to humanize corporate oppression. They cannot—and do not intend to—end the futile and ceaseless wars, dismantle the security and surveillance state, halt the fossil fuel industry’s ecocide, curb the predatory class of bankers and international financiers, lift Americans out of poverty or restore democracy.

I pondered this subject and its mythological implications in Chapter Eight of my book:

He is…merely a new “brand,” designed to pacify the public with convincing fantasies while business continues as usual…In the eternal gentleman’s dispute within the ruling class, Wall Street’s man defeated John McCain, the candidate of Big Oil. Obama is merely the newest, more palatable face of empire, with the clear assignment to re-invigorate the myth of innocence.

His role, writes Greg Palast, is to “…soothe America’s conscience with the happy fairy tale that his election marked the end of racism in the USA.” If the more blatant forms of traditional bigotry have receded somewhat, a newer, more insidious version may have appeared. Tim Wise writes that “Racism 2.0” allows whites to celebrate the achievements of certain acceptable, non-threatening individuals such as Obama who have “transcended their blackness,” while continuing to fear and discriminate against the great majority of blacks, reds and browns…

But I was willing to entertain other possibilities:

Perhaps his election does represent a change in consciousness…“It’s not that Obama is the change,” writes Michael Ventura, “…it’s that his election is an expression of decades of painful, difficult, incremental changes…A paradox consists of at least two aspects that are opposite yet equally true…It is equally true that Obama inspired his way into the Oval Office and that he bought it. Obama won by the power of a paradox, and his administration, for good and for ill, will be a paradox of power…Perhaps only the language of paradox will work to facilitate the breakdown of a crust so hardened as American myth.”…In the short run, that myth has actually been strengthened by the philosophy of “Yes we can.” Only in America (we are told) could such a mixed-race person rise so high from such humble beginnings. The story is so familiar: an exceptionally extraordinary man – the Hero – comes out of nowhere and takes power in a dangerous time.

And I offered what turned out to be an accurate prediction of the next few years:

…hope taken to the extreme can make people inappropriately dependent on specific individuals, rather than on their own capabilities. The risk of pursuing a philosophy of inclusion in a madhouse is that it may easily evoke its shadow of disillusionment, deflation and further disengagement when things go wrong…

I also wrote,

In his defense, we must note that seven former godfathers of a fifty billion dollar crime syndicate known for assassinating public figures – the CIA – very publicly warned him not to probe too deeply into allegations of prisoner abuse by that same gang. It was, perhaps, a declaration of just who is really in charge to a man who receives over thirty death threats per day.

Obama was anything but stupid, and he was perfectly well aware that, when shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco John Kennedy said that he wished he could “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds,” he had signed his own death warrant. In 2012 Ray McGovern described a meeting Obama took with some disappointed liberal supporters:

And I know from a good friend who was there when it happened…Why don’t you do the things we thought you stood for? Obama turned sharply and said, “Don’t you remember what happened to Martin Luther King Jr.?” That’s a quote, and that’s a very revealing quote.

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