“Only the mood music has changed”: Tariq Ali on Obama’s presidency

By Wednesday 20 October 2010 No Comments

Is president Barack Obama the change America has been waiting for or is he another corporate Democrat representing elite interests?  According to Tariq Ali, very little has chanced between Obama and former president George W. Bush.  In his latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad,”  Ali argues that Obama is carrying on the reckless policies of the Bush regime.  If Obama continues down this path, the Democratic Party not only face the prospect of the House & Senate in 2010 but also the presidency in 2012.  This should be a cause for concern.

I caught up with Ali during his American book tour and here’s what he had to say about the Obama presidency.

Where did the idea for this book emanate from? Why did you want to write a book about “The Obama Syndrome” and what does that refer to?

The idea occurred because I speak a lot on the United States. People ask me questions after each talk and increasingly in the past two to three years, the talk has been about Obama.  I thought a short book which essentially provided a balance sheet from the left on the mid-term would be a useful exercise. Given that he’s being attacked nonstop for being a socialist, a leftist, being a Muslim and all this nonsense that comes from the Tea Party-Fox Television alliance, I thought it was better to have a hard-headed realistic account about who the guy really is.  So my book is a critique of him, but it’s also by implication a very sharp critique of people who claim that everything Obama is doing is so radical that they can’t take it anymore.

What do you think are the biggest myths that are being perpetrated about Barack Obama as a president and his policy making?

The myths being perpetrated about him by his enemies are that everything he has done has been incredibly radical.  The myths being perpetrated about him by his friends are that this marks a definitive break with Bush-Cheney.  Both are wrong.  My book stresses the continuities in foreign policy between the Bush and Obama administrations.  I argue that all that has changed is the mood music.

This change of mood music is not unimportant because it gets the whole of Europe back on (the U.S.’s) side and some of them were alienated by Bush’s disconcerting way of putting it on the line.  If he was doing something, he would say “This is how we are going to do it.  We are going to take these guys out.”  Europe found that a bit insensitive whereas Obama coats with it with sugar and honey and does the same thing.

He speaks fine and lofty words but when it comes down to it, the policies are no different.  In the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the policies are much more reactionary and worse in the sense that the wars are being escalated.

What was your reaction when Obama spoke in Berlin, Germany prior to his election?  There were huge numbers of people who came to see him at Brandenburg Gate.  Do most Europeans have a sense of hope with Obama or has that changed?

When the crowds came out in Berlin, it was really a sign of desperation.  It was a sign that Europe itself is powerless.  It was a sign that they depend totally on the president of the United States.  Those demonstrations, curiously enough, were an indication of European civility.  But there was also a sense of desperation that at last, we have a new Roman emperor at the White House who looks good, sounds good, and let’s hope he is good.  That mood has long dissipated.

What was your reaction to Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last year? Would you agree that it set a new tone in terms of engaging the Muslim world? What were the real effects that speech had on the Muslim world?

Well, the real effect was to create an illusion, that perhaps he is different.  I wasn’t taken in by the speech at all.  By that time, we knew what he was up to.  I mean it’s very different from the way Bush or Cheney spoke but the aims of the exercise were the same: to make sure these people, especially the Egyptian and other Middle Eastern governments, remained on their side while the U.S. carried on with its policies as before.  It was nice words in some cases, but in terms of concrete polices there was no change.  That is what is most striking about this administration.

What did Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize mean? It seems like they awarded it to him because he wasn’t George W. Bush.  Why would the Nobel Prize committee do such a thing? How shallow of a decision was this in the first place?

Again, this was a sign of desperation and these old men in Norway who award the prize were just too anxious to express their views that we have a new president in the United States and he’s not Bush, so let’s go down on our knees before him and that will make him not Bush even more.  It was a decision that was strongly attacked in Norway and there were demonstrations against Obama when he arrived. There lots and lots of people in Norway who were incredibly critical of it and the guys who awarded the prize were told so in no uncertain terms.

What did they base their criteria on?  He was only in office for a few months.  What exactly did that accomplish?

Let us say it was servility.  The [Nobel Committee] thought that by giving him the Nobel Peace Prize it would make him peaceful.  It was not a smart way of thinking, especially given that most of Europe is against the war in Afghanistan.  Whereas the European elites carry on with the war.

Many of Obama’s supporters claim democracy is a piecemeal process and it takes years to get meaningful change accomplished. Do you agree that Obama is putting the country on the right path toward better times ahead?

No, I don’t.  I think the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is deteriorating rapidly and going from bad to worse.  Most serious American intelligence people know this and say it.  Which is why the military establishment is deeply split on this business.  They will try and concoct something together and present it as a huge triumph, just like they’re doing in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, they haven’t even been able to seriously and effectively divide the population.  The bulk of the population remains deeply hostile to the United States and this corrupt elite that runs Afghanistan is seen as the instruments of the United States.  The Karzai family is corrupt, the elections are rigged, and they think people don’t notice these things but they do.

Obama supporters are not fond of critics deconstructing Obama’s policies.  Oftentimes his supporters might say, “Well, what do you have to offer?” What does the left have to offer in terms of alternative solutions?

The alternative in Afghanistan is very clear: withdraw all NATO troops without further delay.  In Pakistan, it’s also very clear: withdraw American troops from the bases they’ve been provided with and the end the drone attacks that are killing more civilians than anyone else.  It’s not a big problem.  The alternatives at home are to carry through policies that don’t favor the corporations but actually help the poor.

You have a situation in the United States where 14-15% of the population is well below the poverty line and 44 million people are out of work.  So really, the talk of tax cuts is just obscene.  It’s not going to change anything fundamentally.  You have a very deep and growing class divide in the United States.  Sheldon Wolin, political science professor of Princeton University, is now very disparaging about the state of American democracy.

The symbiosis between money and politics has reached such a stage that it is difficult to talk about politicians who are independent of big money.  What we have, the form that American democracy has taken on, could now be called the dictatorship of capital.

What has happened to the American left? Why is not strong today? Does it seem that when Obama was elected it just disappeared?

A few points need to be made here.  One is that the American left historically has been very weak compared to Europe.  There are many reasons for this.  One is continuous repression against them since the 1920s.  They were targeted, deported, or killed in some cases.  The Black Panthers, who emerged in as a very radical force within the African-American community, were targeted, assassinated or killed. Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, two of the most interesting leaders from the African-American community, were both assassinated.  So if you look at it historically, the last 150 years has not favored the left or the radical tradition.

Then we had a brief period during the Vietnam War where you had a huge antiwar movement in the United States and there was a slight reversal of that process, though as we know now, the COINTELPRO program targeted that movement.  Since Ronald Reagan’s time and the capitulation of the Democrats through Reaganism, the Left has been even weaker.  For the Left to still cling on to the Democrats is pathetic, really.  Some of them still do.  Something new should emerge in the United States.  When, or whether it will, remains an open question.

When it doesn’t and the Left is totally marginal, then you have a growth of the populist right as we are seeing and a very nutty version of the populist right as we are seeing in the Tea Party.  But one should even put that in perspective.  Because whenever you have a Democrat elected as president, you have a resurgence of far-right groups.  You have the Ku Klux Klan in the period immediately after the Civil War, which was the largest political movement in the history of the United States.  It had millions and millions of members.

Following that, you had the John Birch Society, the League for Liberty, and other other groups which organized the far right to make life difficult for the Democrats and now you have the Tea Party, which has the same lineage as these people.  The interesting thing is unlike the John Birch Society, the Tea Party has gone much further in taking over the Republican Party than the previous groups did, which is an indication of how far to the right mainstream politics has shifted since the Reagan period.  There is no equivalent on the left or of the left in the Democratic Party.  So at the moment my opinion is somewhat bleak.

What is the left failing to do in order to become more effective? What do they have to do in order to connect with more people?

I think Obama’s election campaign was very clever but it did demobilize the left completely.  The huge numbers of people who turned out to listen to Obama- many of them had come out to the anti-Iraq war demonstrations and were critical of the Bush Administration- but they were subsumed by (the Obama) campaign.  I know simply from talking with people that many of them are now very disappointed and disillusioned.  But whether they will get together to organize, I don’t know.

I think the big temptation will be to exaggerate the danger of Tea Partyism and use that as a flag to rally people behind Obama again on the basis of, “He may be bad, he may be wrong, but the Tea Party will be worse.”  There is a strong element of truth in that, but given the continuities between the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations I find it difficult to believe that the Tea Party gang, even if they takeover the Republicans, which they haven’t, would do anything that is too different.  It might seem shocking to people to say this but if you look at it, what will they do that is different from now?

A common response I hear from Democratic Party enthusiasts is, “If we don’t elect Obama, we’ll have to deal with John McCain and Sarah Palin.”  What do activists need to do to connect with people and convince them that it’s not electoral politics that will bring meaningful social change?

It’s different in different parts of the world.  I never give prescriptions to people in different countries.  I know it’s difficult but I think things need to be done.

For instance, if look at education in America there is an obsession with charter schools.  It is leading to a lot of unrest in communities.  The mayor of Washington, DC, Adrian Fenty, has been removed because he is an African-American liberal.  The new mayor, Vincent Gray, is dismantling public schools and bringing marketing and management values into education.

Diana Ravitch has written a very good book on how this awful neoliberal education system was being imposed by George W. Bush and was not working.  Now Obama is carrying on the same policy and making it worse.  No one likes this and when some organization takes place in Chicago, parts of the west coast, and most recently in D.C., they vote these people out.

There are some straws in the wind, which point out the direction we should be thinking and moving and it has to be grassroots organizing.  That is what needs to be done on issues which concern communities.

Many people believe the two-party system works in affecting social change, albeit slowly.  I believe our time and efforts need to focus on social movements.  What will it take to attract people to this alternative as opposed to believing that two-party politics is the only way to go?

I think organizing on a local and regional level, given the size of this country, is absolutely critical to that.  Once you begin to organize like that, then to have candidates at local levels who offer completely different alternatives to the Tweedledee, Tweedledum system.

Oftentimes people tell me, “You’re a purist and mainstream Americans do not support those ideas and solutions” or, “Purist politics and policies only attract others on the fringe-left.”  What will it take for someone like Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney, Keith Ellison, and other like-minded politicians to finally succeed?

Well, Kucinich caved on Obama’s health care bill.  All of them caved in Congress.  So I think once you are in the Democratic Party, you can be easily arm-twisted out of any radical thoughts.  Obama did this with Kucinich and others saying, “My presidency is on the line.  What the hell do you think these guys are up to?”  So I think organizing has to be done outside this framework and once it reaches a certain level, then people have to contest at local, regional, and national levels.  That is the only way forward.

What was your reaction to Obama’s communication director Robert Gibbs’ criticism of “the professional left?” Do you think this is indicative of how the Obama Administration treats social change activists?

This is a mainstream-center administration.  The Obama Administration is not an administration with any radical credentials at all.  They are so desperate to win over the Right because they have the Left in their pockets anyway and the Left will vote for them at election time, or so they imagine, and they do not like any critiques from the liberal or new Left at all.  They have no time for that.  What they are concerned with is how they appease Glenn Beck.  Once you are in that frame of mind, then any criticism from within or without your own ranks of the Left seems completely extraneous.  They treat it very viciously, saying, “Don’t you know what we are dealing with?  Just shut-up and keep quiet.”

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