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CounterPunch Diary

Hail to the Chief of Staff

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

The first trumpet blast of change ushers in Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of staff and gate keeper. This is the man who arranges his schedule, staffs out the agenda, includes, excludes. It’s certainly as sinister an appointment as, say, Carter’s installation of arch cold-warrior Zbigniev Brzezinski as his National Security Advisor at the dawn of his “change is here” administration in 1977.

Emanuel, as Ralph Nader points out in my interview with him below, represents the worst of the Clinton years. His profile as regards Israel is explored well on this site by lawyer John Whitbeck. He’s a former Israeli citizen, who volunteered to serve in Israel in 1991 and who made brisk millions in Wall Street. He is a super-Likudnik hawk, whose father was in the fascist Irgun in the late Forties, responsible for cold-blooded massacres of Palestinians. Dad’s unreconstructed ethnic outlook has been memorably embodied in his recent remark to the Ma’ariv newspaper that "Obviously he [Rahm] will influence the president to be pro-Israel… Why wouldn’t he be [influential]? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House."

Working in the Clinton White House, Emanuel helped push through NAFTA, the crime bill, the balanced budget and welfare reform. He favored the war in Iraq, and when he was chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 he made great efforts to knock out antiwar Democratic candidates. On this site in October and November, 2006, John Walsh documented both the efforts and Emanuel’s role in losing the Democrats seats they would otherwise have won.

In 2006 Emanuel had just published a book with Bruce Reed called The Plan: Big Ideas for America, with one section focused on “the war on terror”. Emanuel and Reed wrote, “We need to fortify the military’s ‘thin green line ‘around the world by adding to the U.S. Special Forces and the Marines, and by expanding the U.S. army by 100,000 more troops. …Finally we must protect our homeland and civil liberties by creating a new domestic counterterrorism force like Britain’s MI5.” Recall that Obama has been calling throughout his recent campaign for an addition of 92,000 to the US Army and US Marine Corps.

Emanuel and Reed had fond words for the mad-dog Peter Beinart, neocon warrior theoretician for the Democrats, roosting Marty Peretz’s The New Republic, and author of The Good Fight where Beinart explained why a tough new national security policy is as essential to the future of of progressive politics as a united front against totalitarianism and communism was to the New Deal and the Great Society. Emanuel and Reed also commended Anne-Marie Slaughter’s proposal for "a new division of labor in which the United Nations takes on economic and social assistance and an expanded NATO takes over the burden of collective security." In other words, let NATO shoot the natives and the UN clean the floors.

Walsh took a hard look at the 2006 Democratic primary race between Christine Cegelis and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois’s 6th CD, a Republican District, which had elected the disgusting Henry Hyde from time immemorial. In 2004 Cegelis, who iwas only mildly antiwar, ran as the Democrat with a grass roots campaign and polled a remarkable 44 per cent in her first run. It was not too long before Hyde decided to retire, and the field seemed to be open for Cegelis in the November poll, in 2006.

Enter Rahm Emanuel, who promptly dug up a pro-war candidate, Tammy Duckworth. Although she had both her legs blown off in Iraq, she remained committed to "staying the course" in Iraq. Duckworth had no political experience and did not live in the 6th District. Emanuel raised a million dollars for her and brought in Joe Lieberman, Barak Obama, John Kerry, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton to support her. Despite all this help and with the Cegelis campaign virtually penniless, Duckworth barely managed to eke out a primary victory by a measly four percentage points.

To win the House, the Dems had to win 15 seats from the Republicans. Walsh identified 22 candidates hand picked by Emanuel to run in open districts or districts with Republican incumbents. Of these, nine adopted a US “must win” in Iraq position and only one of Rahm’s candidates was for prompt withdrawal from Iraq.

Then, after the election, Walsh assessed Rahm’s supposed brilliance in winning back the House. “Looking at all 22 candidates hand-picked by Rahm, “ Walsh wrote, “we find that 13 were defeated [including Duckworth], and only 8 won! And remember that this was the year of the Democratic tsunami and that Rahm’s favorites were handsomely financed by the DCCC. The Dems have picked up 28 seats so far, maybe more. So out of that 28, Rahm’s choices accounted for 8! Since the Dems only needed 15 seats to win the House, Rahm’s efforts were completely unnecessary. Had the campaign rested on Rahm’s choices, there would have been only 8 or 9 new seats, and the Dems would have lost. In fact, Rahm’s efforts were probably counterproductive for the Dems since the great majority of voters were antiwar and they were voting primarily on the issue of the war (60 per cent according to CNN). But Rahm’s candidates were not antiwar.

Talking to Nader about the Campaign, on November 5.

AC: In 2000,you drew nearly 10,000 people to a speech in Portland, Oregon. This year you got barely 2,000 in in the whole of Multnomah County where Portland lies, perhaps the most progressive county in the nation. Is this a sign of the withering of the progressive ggleft or the dead end of independent political campaigns?

Nader: It’s a sign of the swoon in the voting booth by people who told pollsters that they were going to vote for me at a level of 4 to 7 million; that is, 6 per cent nationally in the summer and 3 per cent the day before the election, according to CNN. In Washington DC district Obama got 94 per cent. I said to people, how many years have you known me? And they answered, it’s a historic occasion. I wanted to be part of history. The real issue in this campaign is the voters. These are people who knew all about Obama’s flipflops, his support for offshore drilling, for FISA, his role as the number one corporate cadidate.

When you in prison and you’re told you can’t get out and to chose between TB and cancer you’ll chose. It’s beyond politics, it’s psychology. This is what happens when we’re trapped in the winner take all closed system, watching tv.

The pattern is: Progressive politics for three years, and in the fourth year it renews itself with heavy doses of regressive politics and charges forward again.

I thought we’d get two to three millon votes. We had a huge internet presence.

AC: How many votes did you get? This year and in the last two campaigns?

Probably 700,000. In 2000 it was 2.8 million. In 2004, 450,000. But those figures don’t tell the story. In New York this time for example it was almost impossible to find me on the ballot.

AC What about you calling him an Uncle Tom on Fox?

Nader: On Fox I said that as the first African American president we wish him well. The question is, will he be Uncle Sam for the people or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations which are driving America into the ground. Fox cut it off after “corporations”.

He is less vulnerable to criticism and harder to criticize because of his race. When I said he was talking White Man’s talk, the PC people got really upset.

It doesn’t matter that he sides with destruction of the Palestinians, and sides with the embargo. It doesn’t matter that he turns his back on 100 million people and won’t even campaign in minority areas. It doesn’t matter than he wants a bigger military budget, and an imperial foreign policy supporting various adventures of the Bush administration. It doesn’t matter that he’s for the death penalty ,which is targeted at minorities. But if you say one thing that isn’t PC, you get their attention. I tell college audiences, a gender, racial or ethnic slur gets you upset, reality doesn’t get you upset.

Can Obama speak truth to the white power structure? There’s every indication he doesn’t want to. For example, in February he stiffed the State of the Black Union annual meeting in New Orleans. He’s a very accommodating personality.

AC: Ralph, Why do you think Ron Paul was able to excite younger voters and you weren’t?

Nader: Ron Paul? There’s the novelty aspect. It was his first try. He hasn’t been losing. He gets the hard core people focused on the gold standard, and abolishing the federal reserve. The “Get government off our back”, rock-ribbed Goldwater people. He says the things mainstream Republicans can’t.

AC: Are the Republicans down for the count for a while?

Nader: Any time there’s a terrorist attack they’re back in business. Enough people will soon forget what Bush and Co actually did. At the moment conservatives have been subjected to Obama’s shock and awe, but they still have all these social issues. As a candidate Obama dodged the Gay Marriage Ban ballot, but they’ll throw the social issues at him. The Republican inventory is intact: “tax and spend”, “over regulation”, plus all these social issues.

AC Does Palin have a future?

Nader: No.

AC: How about the liberals and the left now?

Nader: The real crisis is the self-destruction of the liberal progressive community. It’s got nowhere to go, other than to renew its three out of four year cycle of criticism of the Democrats. They’ve nowhere to go because they’ve made no demands. He’s been a candid right-center Democrat and they’ve given him a free ride. No demands. From Labor? No demands. He gave them a sop on the card check. He campaigned for two years, promised blacks nothing, Latinos nothing, women’s groups nothing, labor nothing. Contrast the lack of demands on the liberal progressive side to what the Limbaugh crowd exacted from McCain.

AC: You think Michael Moore could have made some demands in return for his support?

Nader: Moore knows were his bread is buttered. He’s seen what the Hollywood set and the others did to me.

AC: How do you see the next phase playing out?

Nader: Obama faces three crises: wars overseas, economic collapse and the deficit. They can’t use fiscal policy very much, so he’s going to be strapped by things like Medicare.

He’s got along on general rhetoric, but now each decision will shake some section of the liberal constituency.

They need to launch a comprehensive program dealing with poverty, low income housing, corruption and extortion in the ghettoes, and doubling the minimum wage to compensate for inflation.

They need to address the right of labor to form trade unions without coming up against the steel wall of Taft Hartley

Health insurance? He’ll extend tax supports which will give the insurance companies more business. He should deal with drug prices, but that’s a battle he won’t undertake.

How’s he going to deal with the auto companies which are in deep trouble? Take the proposed GM-Chrysler merger hich makes no sense and will mean lay-offs for 90,000 workers. If people don’t want the cars then the sacrifices and subsidies are to no avail.

The only way this guy can ever get his head above water is if he is courageous. What he’s basically doing so far is giving the Clinton crowd a second chance. Rahm Emanuel? He’s the worst of Clinton. Spokesman for Wall Street, Israel, globalization.

Second: demilitarize foreign policy, establishing the international stability that flows from our becoming a respectful but energetic humanitarian superpower, confronting world issues like drinking water and infectious diseases.

He has to reverse course on Afghanistan. As Ashraf Ghani former finance minister for Karzai has said, the approach to Afghanistan should be the need for justice, the fundamental basis of all public order.

Third, he’s got to develop economic policy for the greatest good for the greatest number. Public works not bailout. Put money where it matters.

He’s got to say to the rich and powerful, you have to give up your greed. It should be a two-track presidency, dealing with issues day to day, and strengthening the fiber of democratic society. That’s partly a matter of shareholder authority, worker-owned pension funds, which is a third of Wall Street. If every such fund was given the authority to control what they own, it wd be over. Look at all institutional shareholderd in Fannies. Their holdings are worth one per cent of what they were and these were the second safest investments after Treasuries! Believe in first principles: what you own, you control. If you screw up you’re free to sink — the first and second principles of capitalism.

I’m going to write Obama a letter in the next month saying, what you have to do is a pre-State of the union where you lay out exactly where the Bush Administration has left America, in category after category, so you will not be hung with it. In the pre-state of the union, Obama should say, This is the mess
I’ve inherited.

Second, Obama has to cut the sequence of war crimes and high crimes and misdeameanours. If not, he’ll become a war criminal himself within a month. Shut down Guantanamo with strict directives, no torture. If he continue his policies, then he’ll become a war criminal. If you going to restore the rule of law, you have got to draw the line between what you’re going to do and what you refuse to inherit. Then it’s a real fresh start.

Obama’s a guy who’s got away with a ten minute speech for two years. He won too easily. He didn’t have to respond to the liberal constituencies. He’s really had it very easy, because he had an easy act to challenge and an easy act to follow ,

AC: How do you feel about your run?

Nade: I’m happy I ran, because the alternative is total surrender. I carried the banner to 50 states. I surprised myself. Look at the abolitionist Liberty Party in the mid-19th century. It didn’t get a tenth of one per cent. Did you think those people wasted their vote? We were quite successful this time in beating back ballot access barriers , in Arizona and Ohio. It’s like the early stages of fighting Jim Crow laws.

AC: The history of third parties over the past thirty years is not very encouraging.

Nader: We’re advancing majoritarian programs and the majority voters are trapped into the two party choice  This is what happens. Obama sank public funding. Not only did he betray the principle and therefore shattered his credibility. In so outdoing he way outraised McCain. I read the trade literature. Not one of these industries — banking, insurance, automotive, oil, agribusiness, international trade – is worried. They’re all totally calm. The corporate state moves on.

Corporate power has unique characteristics. It is perfectly willing and able to corrupt, regardless of sexual or ethnic preference. It offers equal opportunities to be corrupted or coopted . That’s why it’s very difficult for the civil community, which is affected by principles, nuances, honest disagreements, to confront the monistically commercial corporations. No one says ‘the big debate inside Exxon is whether to go more for oil or solar. That’s why every religion in the world, in their scriptures, issues a warning not to give too much power to the merchant class. The commercial instinct is relentless, consistent, limitless in achieving its goal. It will run rough-shod to destroy, co-opt or dilute civic and spiritual values that stand in its way.

Talking of Hope and Change…

But first a word about Alan Greenspan. In his inaugural I trust President Obama will have some grateful words for the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose 20-year tenure in that position reduced the finances of the United States and hence those of much of the world to rubble, thus giving Obama the pivot for his October comeback.

In our latest newsletter, we publish a particularly searing assessment of Greenspan as a grade-A world monster, by Frederic Claremont. Also in this subscriber-only issue, we give you John Hatch’s terse story of one foreclosure, in California’s Central Valley – a region devastated by the collapse of the housing bubble. And Kristian Williams outlines the structured world of police torture in Chicago’s Area 2, whose erstwhile chief has just been indicted.

I strongly recommend a subscription, just as I recommend you make haste to buy from the CounrterPunch bookstore Kevin Gray’s new Waiting for Lightening to Strike: The Findamentals of Black Politics, never more relevant than now. You want political history, not hagiography; a political agenda, not the hype of “hope”? Here it is.

And finally, talking of change, we seek whatever spare change you feel able to spring loose for CounterPunch. We fly this site through electronic space 365 days a year for your instruction and pleasure, and we have only one financial safety net and it’s held by you CounterPunchers. You give up holding the net, we crash to earth. We’re coming into the third week of our annual fundraiser, and we’re still a long way from our goal.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com