Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Finally some time to respond to your recent letter, where you asked me
to explain the "crazy American political situation" and why "the U.S. is
behaving so recklessly" with regard to Iran. Your terms are right on the
First off, it's important to know that "the U.S." you refer to is mainly
the Bush Administration. In poll after recent poll, Americans have
indicated they regard his presidency as the worst ever in U.S. history.
More than three-quarters of the citizenry, for example, now believe
Bush's war in Iraq was a terrible mistake that has taken this country
into a catastrophic quagmire, and nearly two-thirds want our troops to
start withdrawing as soon as practicable.
In other words, though it took a few years to learn how to read (and
ignore) the Bush-enabling corporate mass-media, the American citizenry
overwhelming now "gets it." They understand that their reigning
government is wildly off-track in terms of good governance and adherence
to the Constitution, and, in important ways, is endangering U.S.
national security in reckless misadventuring abroad. Americans also are
mindful of the several trillion dollars that are being poured down the
Iraq Occupation and "war on terror" ratholes, all to the detriment of
our own infrastructure and social-program needs at home.
But, despite the tanking economy that is squeezing the middle class
badly, and red-hot anger at the CheneyBush Administration for failing to
deal with the issues most Americans care about (affordable health care,
educational reform, good jobs, the Iraq disaster, college loans,
sky-rocketing energy costs, etc.), the citizens tend to do little more
than sign online petitions and occasionally send a donation to their
The operating belief is that every four years, an election will resolve
the situation so no need to get politically involved in a deep and
consistent way. In addition, in this dismal economy a growing number of
Americans are just squeezing by financially, if that, and feel they
don't really have the time or energy to become active dissenters. Obama
or Clinton, or maybe even John McCain, will take care of the situation
in a few months anyway, many figure, so no need to do much.
All too often, these excuses demonstrate lazy thinking, of course, aided
by the mass-media's concentrating on the electoral "horse race" and on
distracting, trivial matters. But even if those citizen-expectations
about the magic-bullet of elections were on the mark, there still would
be problems. First, the voting and vote-tabulating systems are grossly
deficient, provably corrupt and corruptible. Also, the three
presidential hopefuls (all of whom are beholden, to a greater or lesser
degree, to the usual elite political and corporate force$) leave much to
be desired in terms of making significant changes, especially when it
comes to American foreign/military policy.
John McCain, for example, is basically a Bush clone when it comes to
foreign policy, with a scary lust for war. He's content for U.S. troops
to stay in Iraq for 100 years or more, and he's indicated his
willingness, indeed eagerness, to bomb Iran. For McCain, as it is for
Bush, the world is either simple black or simple white, no shades of
complexity on the horizon. Act tough, act rough, the rest of the world
will get out of our way, and American hegemony will prevail across the
McCain clearly is the most extreme of the three, with little operative
understanding of economics and, surprisingly, foreign-policy matters.
Whether it's his advanced age, or simple stubborn obtuseness, he comes
across as a locked-in-the-past ideologue. Does he really believe what
he's saying or are his positions what he feels he's required to assert
in order to strengthen the GOP base and lure the old "Reagan Democrats"
to his side for the general election?
One telling anecdote in this regard before moving on to the Democrats:
McCain has been buddy-buddies with Jon Stewart for nearly a decade, and
in his "maverick Republican" phase was invited often to appear on
Stewart's "The Daily Show"; there the two of them would banter and yuck
it up. But when McCain appeared on the show in 2006, as he was gearing
up to run again for president, Stewart, clearly disappointed in his
hero, asked McCain why he was sucking up to the right wing
fundamentalists by going to kiss the rings, so to speak, of the very
ultraconservative leaders he once had excoriated as "agents of
intolerance" who shouldn't be "pandered" to by politicians. McCain
danced around the question, trying not to answer. But his old friend
Stewart was relentless and finally McCain, apparently forgetting that he
was on national television, and in the presence of his joking buddy
Stewart and an adoring audience, smiled ruefully and admitted, yes, he
was indeed kowtowing to "the crazy base," doing what he had to do to win
the presidency. (See the full transcript of the exchange
The astute Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has been following
McCain for many years. Here's his
explanation for McCain's current
including taking the lower-than-Clinton attack road against Obama:
"The truth is that [McCain] doesn't actually have any real
-- or to put it more precisely, no real consistent convictions. That's
evidenced in part by the kind of campaign the guy's running now. And at
least a few of his press admirers are starting to sense that. But where
you really see it most clearly is in the policy agenda he embraces.
"Genuine political and ideological transformations are pretty rare in
contemporary American politics. Two in a row in less than a decade is
close to unprecedented. McCain went from conservative Republican, to
embracing many core Democratic policy positions and actively discussing
a possible party switch, to cycling back and re-embracing the same
In short, the McCain that Stewart and many others admired for his
"maverick" willingness to confront the Bush Administration on
campaign-finance reform, torture as state policy, racial intolerance
inside the GOP, etc., is no more. Now it's the old guy who knows he has
one arrow left in his quiver and is going to stand with the fundies and
extreme conservatives on all the major issues because he believes that's
his only chance to wind up in the White House. To quote Stewart again:
"Has John McCain's Straight Talk Express been re-routed through
Bullshittown?" The answer is, sad to say, yes.
One would like to believe that the two Democratic contenders are
significantly different, especially on Iraq and Iran. But are they?
Clinton the other day said that if Iran launched an attack on Israel
while she was President, she would order Iran "obliterated." (Her term.)
There was not even a mention that Israel has demonstrated it's perfectly
capable of defending itself. Or that committing genocide on the Iranian
population would inflame the world and place America in the war-crimes
dock in The Hague.
Obama similarly has rattled the sabers, saying he would keep the
"military option" on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear
weapons. He's been accused of not being "forceful" enough, and, by
assuming the macho stance, perhaps Obama hopes to defuse that
accusation. Maybe that's why he's supporting the promotion of Gen.
Petraeus, the architect of the "surge" in Iraq, to be head of Central
But regardless of political or personal motivations here, in all three
candidates what's clearly on exhibit is an unstated but underlying
belief that America's superpower status entitles it -- nea, requires it
-- to make decisions of peace and war for other countries and regions of
That's the rationale the neo-cons used for attacking and occupying Iraq
in the first place, which Bush bought into without hesitation, and it
appears, sub rosa, to still be active in our strange political dance in
DIFFERENCES ON IRAQ OCCUPATION
On Iraq, the three candidates are a bit more distinct in their
approaches. McCain focuses only on the military aspects of the "surge,"
which he sees as a great success even though the required and promised
political-reconciliation component of the surge isn't happening. McCain
seems determined to keep U.S. troops in that country for as long as it
takes to fashion a strong, capable, American-friendly government and
If it takes decades, a hundred years, a thousand (yes, he threw that one
in, too), that's OK with McCain. He keeps comparing the Iraq situation
to Germany and South Korea, where the U.S. has maintained a troop
presence for more than half a century, conveniently ignoring that there
was and is no raging sectarian war in those countries and no nationalist
insurgency trying to throw out an occupying American force.
In McCain's (and Bush's) view, America has a region to tame, after all,
and that requires that U.S. troops be on hand to help shape the Greater
Middle East to our specifications. Unspoken is another reason: Using
Iraq as a staging area, American power can help "protect" and control
the increasingly-valuable oil flowing in the region that is so
desperately needed and desired by the West.
Clinton has said she would have her military advisors draw up plans for
an orderly withdrawal of American combat troops and begin that
re-deployment, brigade by brigade, within 60 days of her assuming
office. Obama has said he aims to have all U.S. combat troops out of
Iraq within 16 months.
But both Clinton and Obama approve keeping an unspecified number of U.S.
troops in Iraq for an unspecified time -- to help train the Iraqi police
and army, to battle the forces of "al-Qaeda in Iraq," and to be right
there in case the situation were to suddenly deteriorate. (And how could
it not if U.S. military forces are still on the premises?) Again, these
are arguments that demonstrate the underlying soft-imperialism desires
undergirding American exceptionalism.
When you two wrote asking about our "crazy" politics, you made reference
to the verbal boxing match between the two battling Democrats while the
old warrior McCain is out there campaigning for the presidency.
My co-editor/colleague Ernest Partridge has summed up Senator Clinton's
behavior better than I could in his essay
"The Monkey Trap, and
Hillary Clinton's Blind Rush to Defeat." Short version: Clinton has no chance to win the Democratic nomination
by fighting fai rly; her only hope is to destroy Obama by whatever means
necessary. Partridge writes:
"So if Clinton is to be nominated, she must overturn rules that
agreed to, persuade most of the super-delegates to ignore the will of
the voters and caucus participants, and to accomplish all this she must
diminish Obama's stature through negative campaigning. Because such
tactics also devastate the public opinion of her (not very high to begin
with), those same tactics employed to gain the nomination will almost
certainly deprive her of the presidency in the general election.
"In sum, this is Hillary's dilemma: Hold on to the bait, and both
and the Democrats lose. Let go of the bait, and Obama wins. Hillary
Clinton's victory in November is not an option."
A key House Democratic committee chairman the other day wondered aloud
what I've heard voiced quietly elsewhere: If Hillary can't get the
nomination in 2008, she'll so wound Obama that McCain might slip in. Or,
even if Obama were to win the election, he'd be so damaged as to be
unable to govern easily. In either case in 2012, Clinton, the only one
left standing, figures she would be perfectly positioned to take the
Talk about "crazy"! Those reasons seems much too convoluted to be taken
seriously, not the least because Clinton, in this scenario, would be
universally recognized as the Dem spoiler who ruined the party's best
shot for taking back the White House. She would be the Ralph Nader of
2008 who would never be forgiven by the very activist Democratic base
she would need in a future run for the presidency.
TRAGIC FLAW: OVERWEENING AMBITION
I'm not sure Obama would be the greatest campaigner against McCain or
would necessarily be a great or even better-than-average President. But
he is intelligent and a quick-learner, who, I'd like to believe, might
well rise to the occasion. What does seem clear is that he is on a
virtually unstoppable course to win the Democratic nomination and if
Clinton continues to take the low dirty road in her attempt to mortally
wound him, any future career plans beyond the Senate for her are
All politicians at this level are consumed by ambition, but they usually
disguise it a bit. Clinton's is right out there for all to see. Will
she, can she, rein in that aspect of her personality, especially if
Obama winds up winning key states in the upcoming remaining primaries
and more and more superdelegates endorse him? One would hope so for the
good of the party, good of the country, good for her as an important
Democratic leader. But the Clintons are notorious street-scrappers who
will do or say anything to get what they want and, in any event, will
not go gentle into that dark night. No wonder Rove is fixated on them,
as they must remind him of aspects of himself.
That is crazy.
I know American politics don't make much sense to Europeans. Truth is,
it barely makes sense to us here in the States. (On the other hand, I
haven't asked you two to explain your own sketchy European pols such as
Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Putin, et al.) But I hope I've supplied some
insights that might be helpful. Write and let me know your further
thoughts. -- Love to you and the kids, Bernie
Copyright 2008 by Bernard Weiner