Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Every Visit to the Seattle Cen... | I'd Go East »

Friday, July 18, 2008

Obama and the Return of the State Department

posted by on July 18 at 12:19 PM

We can reduce the struggle for power in American politics to one between the State Department and the Pentagon.

Every day around 8 a.m., foreign policy aides at Senator Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters send him two e-mails: a briefing on major world developments over the previous 24 hours and a set of questions, accompanied by suggested answers, that the candidate is likely to be asked about international relations during the day.

One recent Q. & A. asked, for example, whether Obama supported the decision by Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to include a timetable for American troop withdrawal in any new security agreements with the United States. The answer, provided to Obama with bullet points, was yes or “a genuine opportunity,” as he put it in a speech on Iraq this week.

Behind the e-mail messages is a tight-knit group of aides supported by a huge 300-person foreign policy campaign bureaucracy, organized like a mini State Department, to assist a candidate whose limited national security experience remains a concern to many voters.

It’s not because Obama is inexperienced that his campaign has established a mini State Department (300 experts) to advise him on foreign policy—no, get that notion out of your head. Stabilizing international relations for segments of American capital that were neglected by the almost decade-long energy/military regime—this is the whole meaning of his rise to power. The Pentagon has one way of dealing with the world, the State Department a completely different one. For its own survival, America is trying to transition from the former to the latter.

RSS icon Comments


Obama is inexperienced in international affairs. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be president.

Posted by Mike | July 18, 2008 12:09 PM

Typo in the headline -- better fix it fast before the haters get here.

Posted by Patrick McGrath | July 18, 2008 12:10 PM

Thank you for an informative and thought provoking post.

Posted by Organized Lightning | July 18, 2008 12:14 PM

We won't support ball-less NO-Bama and will re-defeat him in November!!!

Posted by clintonsarmy | July 18, 2008 12:26 PM

Yeah, that assessment makes sense. I mean, I think it's pretty broadly assumed that an Obama Administration would rein in the power of the Pentagon, at least relative to the Bush Administration, under which the Pentagon runs amok.

Posted by Hernandez | July 18, 2008 12:35 PM

Obama's entrance exam

The real audience for the Obama campaign's "move to the center" isn't some group of swing voters, but the political, media and business establishment of the U.S.

July 18, 2008

THERE HAVE been many indicators--from huge corporate donations to huge voter turnouts--pointing toward a Democratic victory in November. Paradoxically, the most recent of these indicators is the Obama campaign's well-recognized shift to the "center"--that is, to the right.

Consider the landscape: an opponent running as heir to the most unpopular president in polling history, four out of five Americans telling pollsters the country is "on the wrong track," an economic recession, and the war in Iraq--championed by his opponent--that two-thirds of Americans oppose.

Only the most incompetent or resource-deprived political party could lose in that environment. In this context, the Democrats could be planning on sweeping the entire federal government and ushering in a slew of policies intended to bury the kind of politics that have dominated Washington for the past generation.

Instead, the Democrats' presumptive nominee is rapidly moving to embrace positions that reek of the Washington conventional wisdom he was supposed to be running against.

Immunity for the telecommunications companies from prosecution for participation in the Bush regime's domestic spying program? In the primary against Hillary Clinton, Obama pledged to filibuster legislation granting this. Presumptive nominee Obama now thinks telecomm immunity is all right.

The death penalty for child rapists? Even Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy couldn't stomach an expansion of capital punishment. But Obama, in a statement criticizing the court's decision to throw out a Louisiana law allowing this punishment, lined up with the court Neanderthals Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas.

Other moves to the right came in quick succession: outlining a plan for government funding to "faith-based" organizations that sounded little different from the Bush administration's current program; further hedging on his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq; an interview with an evangelical publication in which he proposed limiting even further the right of women to obtain late-term abortions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHAT GIVES? No doubt, some of this is the standard "move to the center" for the general election. No doubt, were Clinton the nominee instead of Obama, we would be observing the same trimming of positions staked out in the primary season.

In reality, the usual reasons given for this--the need to address the whole country rather than Democratic partisans, the need to win independent and "swing" voters, etc.--don't seem to hold in 2008. Poll after poll shows that independent voters are aligned with Democrats on most issues. So the usual excuses for Obama's shift don't carry as much weight this year (if they ever did.)

But that whole discussion assumes the audience for these moves is the electorate. In fact, the real audience is the political, media and business establishment.

Obama isn't making these gestures because he's worried about adding a few thousand conservative voters in a swing state to his column. Instead, he's confident that he's going to win in November, and he is completing his exam for entrance to the pinnacle of the ruling class.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald, slamming a Los Angeles Times op-ed defending the telecomm immunity bill by Clinton National Security Council official Nancy Soderberg, grasped this:

What all of this is really about--the reason why political elites like Nancy Soderberg are so eager to defend it--is because they really do believe that lawbreaking isn't wrong, that it doesn't deserve punishment, when engaged in by them rather than by commoners...

Just like the pardon of Nixon, the protection of Iran-contra criminals, and the commutation of Lewis Libby's sentence, this bill is yet another step in cementing a two-tiered system of justice in America, where our highest political officials and connected elite can break our laws with impunity.

Obama's embrace of the FISA bill isn't primarily a means to insulate himself from GOP attacks that he is "soft on terrorism"--which would come his way no matter how he voted on it. It is his signal to the political elite that it can disregard all of his "outsider" and "change" rhetoric because he intends to be a loyal servant of their interests.

And the Washington elite intends to make sure that Obama will do its bidding, if we can believe Newsweek editor Evan Thomas's (grandson of the perennial 20th century Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas) description of a soiree of Washington insiders he recently attended. Those assembled, including most of the Democrats and Obama supporters there, didn't believe Obama could "change Washington." Thomas continued:

The people holding such realist views might even want such changes, or most of them. But they know how Washington works: they might argue that Obama will need insiders if he really wants to change Washington (think of FDR's hiring stock speculator Joseph Kennedy to be the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission). But at the same time, they have a strong appreciation for congressional gridlock and the countervailing powers of influence peddlers. They know that money--perfectly legal money--can trump idealistic campaign promises in a city thick with more than 35,000 lobbyists.

Thomas may be right about his Washington buddies, but is he correct in the underlying assumption that Obama is a crusading reformer who will have to contend with the forces of inertia that entrenched establishment represents?

Here, Thomas is wrong.

Obama is already a member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs, the U.S. Senate. He has already collected hundreds of millions of dollars from Silicon Valley and Wall Street--despite his campaign's pretensions of being a grassroots effort. With the exception of his open somersault on the telecomm immunity bill, his other "moves to the center" aren't really that far from the already very cautious and "bipartisan" positions that have been central to his campaign's message.

By way of defending Obama from Republican charges of "flip-flopping" on his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, Countdown with Keith Olbermann guest host Rachel Maddow on July 7 showed multiple video clips of Obama making the same hedges about assessing the "situation on the ground" during the primary campaign.

Although Maddow was trying to show Obama in a positive light--that Obama's recent statements on Iraq were just a restatement of his longstanding position--anyone paying attention could have concluded that Obama's "antiwar" position isn't so antiwar at all. But it is the "responsible" position that most of the Washington elite outside of the discredited Bush/neocon cabal endorses and is counting on Obama to implement.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ALL OF this may leave Obama's progressive supporters in the lurch. But for most of them, it doesn't leave them in a quandary. There is no doubt that they will continue to support Obama, as the Christian Science Monitor's Linda Feldmann explained:

The liberal blogosphere has lit up with outrage, bemoaning how the man who promised to move beyond politics as usual is, well, engaging in politics as usual. Some have vowed to refocus their energy and donations toward progressive candidates further down the ballot. But they will still vote for Obama, not Ralph Nader, the onetime darling of the left, and certainly not Senator McCain. Not voting is also off the table, given the stakes. And so, progressive activists say, Obama is likely to get away with his rightward shift.

One could ask why it's such a stretch for people truly committed to changing the system to conclude that they can't do anything more than vote for Obama. But this is one of the snares of the two-party system, as the socialist Hal Draper noted more than 40 years ago:

Every time the liberal labor left has made noises about its dissatisfaction with what Washington was trickling through, all the Democrats had to do was bring out the bogy of the Republican right.

The lib-labs would then swoon, crying "The fascists are coming!" and vote for the Lesser Evil...the Democrats have learned well that they have the lib-lab vote in their back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those forces to the right.

Posted by Lonnie | July 18, 2008 12:36 PM

@6 Post behind a link. Thank you.

Posted by Lonnie is the new Stranger | July 18, 2008 12:45 PM

Charles, good point and well said.

Posted by lostboy | July 18, 2008 12:49 PM

Posting an entire story @6, regardless of attribution, is a copyright violation.

It's clear that Obama is sending signals to the establishment that he's one of them. I just hope he's lying to them rather than us. Even if he's not, well, we learned from Bill Clinton that an articulate and competent representative of the establishment as president is better than a bumbling and inarticulate one.

Posted by Cascadian | July 18, 2008 12:56 PM

Thanks for posting these thoughts Charles.

@9 If I have the choice between the State Department establishment and continuing increase in the power of the Pentagon establishment, I would definately prefer the State Department.

Check out this discussion of trend of the transition of our aid to Africa from a State Department focus to a Pentagon focus over the past ten years. Pretty sick shit.

Did you see this yet Charles?

Posted by mirror | July 18, 2008 1:07 PM


How about just giving us the link and a short summary and tell us why it is worth linking? Dumping whole articles messes with the flow of the comment section...

Posted by cracked | July 18, 2008 1:12 PM

Wonderfully put, Charles.

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | July 18, 2008 1:15 PM

#4, you are boring.

Posted by w7ngman | July 18, 2008 1:19 PM

Interesting, and important.

Posted by Non | July 18, 2008 1:21 PM

This points out the real reason for the current foreign policy exercise Obama has embarked upon. It's not about a candidate's experience (or perceived lack of it), it's about gathering facts that will underpin the policies to campaign on and implement when elected, all while starting to engage with foreign governments and provide some reassurance NOW.

It exposes a fundamental weakness in the argument that Hillary or McCain would not have to do this because of their resumes compared to Obama.

This is a very good post Charles; I hereby retract any previous snide comments I may have made about substance abuse, marxist rambling or waste of slog bandwidth.

Posted by Joe M | July 18, 2008 1:27 PM

A fine post.

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | July 18, 2008 1:42 PM

The reality is that the reason they have to create a 300 person mini State Department is that the one we have is filled with nutso neocons and people about to retire.

They have to have people ready to get to work on Day One, to fix the problems caused by the last eight years of Incompetence and Tyranny.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 18, 2008 2:00 PM

How could anyone who is serious about becoming POTUS not use whatever is avilable by way of think tanks, Universities or previous administrations? George Bush has run this country without the best minds because he values loyalty over experience, agenda over what is good for the country. And as for the Pentagon, with their budget, they will always have an inordinate amount of power.

Posted by Vince | July 18, 2008 2:11 PM

Alas if only the U.S. State Department had a long history of promoting human rights and multilateralism. Unfortunately, their supposed fundamental differences with the Pentagon seem like a debate between Machivelean Kissinger realists and Machivelian Cheney idealists. I wish the Dems could expand the debate more, give us a better alternative.

Posted by Trevor | July 18, 2008 3:00 PM

Couldn't agree more. People too often assume that capital is monolith. But there are also winners and losers within capital, as recent events underscore.

I view the last 8 years as pretty much a coup by the heavy industry/military contractor/energy wing of capital.

That's why they fought so hard to win at any cost in 2000. That oil is now something like 350% more expensive than it was in 1998 (when it was at an inflation adjusted 20th century low), seems like more than a mere coincidence. The same goes for increased defense expenditures, etc.

That we seem to be heading steadily into price inflation, isn't that surprising either. If you sell oil, defense products in wartime, etc., why do you care about inflation. Price increases don't really effect demand for you unless they get way out of hand (unemployment rates also have much less of an effect).

In addition, your business is more capital intensive than labor intensive, so wage inflation doesn't effect you nearly as much as someone in the consumer durable goods business; moreover, inflation means you get to pay back all the loans you took out to fund your operations with inflated currency, thereby making things cheaper.

Posted by j-lon | July 18, 2008 6:43 PM

Comments Closed

Comments are closed on this post.