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The Blind Alley of J Street and Liberal American Zionism

11:12 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

[This article was co-written by Abba A. Solomon and Norman Solomon.]

Since its founding six years ago, J Street has emerged as a major Jewish organization under the banner “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” By now J Street is able to be a partial counterweight to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The contrast between the two U.S. groups is sometimes stark. J Street applauds diplomacy with Iran, while AIPAC works to undermine it. J Street encourages U.S. support for “the peace process” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while AIPAC opposes any meaningful Israeli concessions. In the pressure cooker of Washington politics, J Street’s emergence has been mostly positive. But what does its motto “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” really mean?

That question calls for grasping the context of Zionism among Jews in the United States — aspects of history, largely obscured and left to archives, that can shed light on J Street’s current political role. Extolling President Obama’s policies while urging him to intensify efforts to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the organization has staked out positions apt to sound humanistic and fresh. Yet J Street’s leaders are far from the first prominent American Jews who have struggled to square the circles of the moral contradictions of a “Jewish state” in Palestine.

Our research in the archives of the American Jewish Committee in New York City, Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere shows that J Street is adhering to — and working to reinforce — limits that major Jewish organizations adopted midway through the 20th century. Momentum for creation of the State of Israel required some hard choices for groups such as the influential AJC, which adjusted to the triumph of an ideology — militant Jewish nationalism — that it did not share. Such accommodation meant acceding to an outward consensus while suppressing debate on its implications within Jewish communities in the United States.

In 1945, AJC staff had discussed the probability of increased bloodshed in Palestine — and a likelihood of “Judaism, as a whole, being held morally responsible for the fallacies of Zionism.” In exchange for AJC support in 1947 for UN partition of Palestine, the AJC extracted this promise from the Jewish Agency: “The so-called Jewish State is not to be called by that name but will bear some appropriate geographical designation. It will be Jewish only in the sense that the Jews will form a majority of the population.”

A January 1948 position paper in AJC records spoke of “extreme Zionists” then ascendant among Jews in Palestine and the United States: The paper warned that they served “no less monstrosity than the idol of the State as the complete master not only over its own immediate subjects but also over every living Jewish body and soul the world over, beyond any consideration of good or evil. This mentality and program is the diametrical opposite to that of the American Jewish Committee.” The confidential document warned of “moral and political repercussions which may deeply affect both the Jewish position outside Palestine, and the character of the Jewish state in Palestine.” Such worries became more furtive after Israel became a nation later in 1948.

Privately, some leaders held out hope that constraints on public debate could coexist with continuing debate inside Jewish institutions. In 1950 the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, wrote in a letter to the head of an anti-Zionist organization, the American Council for Judaism, that the silencing of public dissent would not preclude discussion within the Yiddish-language and Jewish press. In effect, Blaustein contended that vigorous dialogue could continue among Jews but should be inaudible to gentiles. However, the mask of American Jewry would soon become its face. Concerns about growing Jewish nationalism became marginal, then unmentionable.

The recent dispute in the Jewish student group Hillel — whether its leadership can ban Hillel chapters on U.S. college campuses from hosting severe critics of Israeli policies — emerged from a long history of pressure on American Jews to accept Zionism and a “Jewish state” as integral to Judaism. The Jewish students now pushing to widen the bounds of acceptable discourse are challenging powerful legacies of conformity.

During the 1950s and later decades, the solution for avoiding an ugly rift was a kind of preventive surgery. Universalist, prophetic Judaism became a phantom limb of American Jewry, after an amputation in service of the ideology of an ethnic state in the Middle East. Pressures for conformity became overwhelming among American Jews, whose success had been predicated on the American ideal of equal rights regardless of ethnic group origin.

Generally flourishing in a country founded on the separation of religion and state, American Zionists dedicated themselves to an Israeli state based on the prerogatives of Jews. That Mobius strip could only be navigated by twisting logic into special endless dispensations for Jewish people. Narratives of historic Jewish vulnerability and horrific realities of the Holocaust became all-purpose justifications.

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As decades passed after the June 1967 war, while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza wore on, younger American Jews slowly became less inclined to automatically support Israeli policies. Now, 65 years after the founding of Israel, the historic realities of displacement — traumatic for Palestinians while triumphant for many Jewish Israelis — haunt the territorial present that J Street seeks to navigate.

The organization’s avowed goal is an equitable peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. But J Street’s pragmatic, organization-building strength is tied into its real-world moral liability: continuing to accept extremely skewed power relations in Palestine. The J Street leadership withholds from the range of prospective solutions the alternative of truly ending the legally and militarily enforced Jewish leverage over Palestinians, replete with the advantages of dominance (in sharp contrast to the precept of abandoning white privilege that was a requirement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa).

Every conceptual lane of J Street equates being “pro-Israel” with maintaining the doctrine of a state where Jews are more equal than others. Looking to the past, that approach requires treating the historic Zionist conquest as somewhere between necessary and immaculate. Looking at the present and the future, that approach sees forthright opposition to the preeminence of Jewish rights as extreme or otherwise beyond the pale. And not “pro-Israel.”

Like the Obama administration, J Street is steadfast in advocating a “two-state solution” while trying to thwart the right-wing forces led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A goal is to reduce his leverage by altering the political environment he encounters in the United States, where AIPAC — riding high astride much of the U.S. Congress — is aligned with the hard right of Israeli politics. In contrast, J Street is aligned with a fuzzy center that copes with cognitive dissonance by embracing humane rhetoric about Palestinians while upholding subjugation of Palestinians’ rights.

At J Street’s 2011 conference, Rabbi David Saperstein congratulated the organization: “When the Jewish community needed someone to speak for them at the Presbyterian Convention against the divestment resolution, the community turned to J Street, who had the pro-peace credibility to stunt the efforts of the anti-Israeli forces, and they were compellingly effective. They did so at Berkeley on the bus ad fights, debating Jewish Voice for Peace.” Saperstein — a Reform Judaism leader described by Newsweek as the USA’s most influential rabbi — lauded J Street for its special function among “the strongly pro-Israel peace groups that have the credibility to stand before strongly dovish non-Jewish groups and guide them away from delegitimization efforts.”

Such praise for being a bulwark against “delegitimization” is a high compliment for J Street. And it is surely gratifying for its founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. When he reaffirms “our commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel,” he frames it in these terms: “We believe that the Jewish people — like all other people in the world — have the right to a national home of their own, and we celebrate its rebirth after thousands of years.” His official J Street bio says that “Ben-Ami’s family connection to Israel goes back 130 years to the first aliyah when his great-grandparents were among the first settlers in Petah Tikva [near present-day Tel Aviv]. His grandparents were one of the founding families of Tel Aviv, and his father was an activist and leader in the Irgun, working for Israel’s independence and on the rescue of European Jews before and during World War II.” Readers are left to ponder the reference to leadership of the ultranationalist Irgun, given its undisputed terrorist violence.

Whatever its differences with the Likudnik stances of AIPAC and Netanyahu, J Street joins in decrying the danger of the “delegitimization” of Israel — a word often deployed against questioning of Jewish privileges in Palestine maintained by armed force. In sync with U.S. foreign policy, J Street is enmeshed in assuming the validity of prerogatives that are embedded in Netanyahu’s demand for unequivocal support of Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” In the process, the secular USA massively supports a government that is using weapons of war emblazoned with symbols of the Jewish religion, while the U.S. Congress continues to designate Israel as a “strategic ally.” An AIPAC official was famously quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg as boasting, “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”

J Street is aligned with more “moderate” personalities in Israeli politics, but what is considered moderate Zionism in Israel may not match sensibilities outside Israel. On a J Street-sponsored U.S. speaking tour, Knesset member Adi Koll said she is pleased that Palestinian refugees from 1948 are dying off, which she portrayed as good for peace: “This is what we have been waiting for, for more and more of them to die,” to finalize the War of Independence expulsion of Palestinians. J Street’s Ben-Ami has warned of “the ‘one state nightmare’ — a minority of Jewish Israelis in a state with a majority of non-Jewish residents.” For J Street, an embrace of perpetual Jewish dominance as imperative seems to be a litmus test before any criticism of the occupation is to be deemed legitimate.

A human rights lawyer active with Jewish Voice for Peace, David L. Mandel, sees a double standard at work. “Too many progressives on everything else still are not progressive about Israel and Palestine,” he told us. “And J Street, by making it easier for them to appear to be critical, in fact serves as a roadblock on the path to a consistent, human rights and international law-based position.”

Covering J Street’s annual conference in September 2013, Mondoweiss.net editor Philip Weiss pointed out: “J Street still can claim to be a liberal Zionist organization that wants to pressure Israel to leave the settlements. But more than that it wants access to the Israeli establishment, and it is not going to alienate that establishment by advocating any measure that will isolate Israel or put real pressure on it.”

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While evocations of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel may sound uplifting, J Street ultimately lets the Israeli government off the hook by declaring that relationship sacrosanct, no matter what. The organization insists that political candidates funded by J StreetPAC “must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active U.S. leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement.”

The sanctity of the proviso about “the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel” became evident to one of us (Norman Solomon) while running for Congress in 2012 in California. After notification that J Street had decided to confer “On the Street” status on Solomon and another Democratic candidate in the primary race, the group’s leadership suddenly withdrew the stamp of approval — after discovering a Solomon op-ed piece written in July 2006 that criticized Washington’s support for the Israeli bombing of Lebanon then underway. In a specially convened conference call, J Street’s top leaders told the candidate that one statement in the op-ed was especially egregious: “The United States and Israel. Right now, it’s the most dangerous alliance in the world.”

In December 2013, while visiting Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.” He added that — despite occasional “tactical” differences — “we do not have a difference about the fundamental strategy that we both seek with respect to the security of Israel and the long-term peace of this region.”

Two days later, on Dec. 7 at a Saban Center gathering in Washington, Kerry joined with President Obama in paying tribute to the idea of a nation for Jews. Obama endorsed the goal of protecting “Israel as a Jewish state.” (He sat for an interview with billionaire Zionist Haim Saban, who joked: “Very obedient president I have here today!”) For his part, Kerry addressed Israeli ethnic anxiety by urging that Israel heed U.S. advice for withdrawal from some territory, to defuse what he called the “demographic time bomb” — non-Jewish births — threatening the existence of a “Jewish and democratic” state.

Although “militant Islam” is common coin in U.S. discourse about the Middle East, militant Jewish nationalism lacks a place in the conversation. This absence occurs despite — and perhaps because of — the fact that militant Jewish nationalism is such a powerful ideology in the United States, especially in Congress. Yet recent erosion of the taboo has caused some alarm. In May 2011 the Reut Institute, well-connected to the Israeli establishment, held a joint conference with the American Jewish Committee and met with smaller organizations to formalize a policy of  “establishing red-lines with regards to the discourse about Israel between legitimate criticism and acts of delegitimization.”

In its own way, J Street has laid down red-line markers along the left perimeter of American Zionism. For instance, some of the most telling moments of J Street’s existence came during the November 2012 Gaza crisis. As the conflict escalated, Israel threatened a ground invasion. J Street urged Israeli restraint but did not oppose the ongoing intense bombardment of Gaza. Instead, echoing President Obama, the organization endorsed Israel’s “right and obligation to defend itself against rocket fire and against those who refuse to recognize its right to exist and inexcusably use terror and violence to achieve their ends.”

J Street’s statement, titled “Enough of Silence,” eerily mirrored the brutal asymmetry of the warfare then raging — and, for that matter, the asymmetry of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While far more Palestinians than Israelis were dying (87 Palestinian and four Israeli noncombatants lost their lives, according to a report from the human-rights group B’Tselem), J Street condemned the killing by Palestinians but merely questioned the ultimate efficacy of the killing by Israelis. While J Street was appropriately repulsed by the bloodshed, it could not plead for reversal of the underlying, continuing injustice beyond its advocacy of a two-state solution. During the years ahead, J Street is likely to be instrumental in establishing and reinforcing such red lines.

A rare instance when J Street has not endorsed President Obama’s approach in the Middle East came in September 2013, when the administration pressed for U.S. missile strikes on Syria following claims that the Bashar al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. J Street remained officially silent on the issue; Jeremy Ben-Ami reportedly pushed for endorsement of an attack, but many others in the organization were opposed. The Forward newspaper quoted a J Street activist: “Jeremy is a pragmatist. He wants to keep us as progressive as possible without going too far from the mainstream.”

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J Street is striving to support Israel differently than AIPAC: by fostering the more peaceful, humane streams of Zionism. But among new generations of U.S. Jews, the Zionist rationales for Israel as a whole are losing ground. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 93 percent of American Jews state they are proud of being part of the Jewish people — but only 43 percent say that “caring about” the State of Israel is essential to being a Jew, and the figure drops to 32 percent of respondents under 30 years old.

The Jewish establishment has always represented those Jews choosing to affiliate with institutionalized Judaism. More and more, this leaves out large numbers who don’t believe that blood-and-soil Jewish nationalism should crowd out their Jewish and universalist values. As the Pew survey shows, American Jews are less sympathetic than American Jewish organizations to enforcing Jewish political nationalism with armed force.

Last summer, Ben-Ami told the New Republic: “We are advocating for a balance between the security needs of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians. It is by definition a moderate, centrist place.” Ben-Ami highlighted his strategy for practicality: “We have the ear of the White House; we have the ear of a very large segment of Congress at this point; we have very good relations with top communal leadership in the Jewish community. If you want to have a voice in those corridors of power, then get involved with J Street.”

We recently submitted three questions to Ben-Ami. Asked about the historic concerns that a “democratic Jewish state” would be self-contradictory, he replied: “J Street believes it is possible to reconcile the essence of Zionism, that Israel must be the national homeland of the Jewish people, and the key principles of its democracy, namely, that the state must provide justice and equal rights for all its citizens. In the long run, Israel can only manage the tension between these two principles if there is a homeland for the Palestinian people alongside Israel.”

Asked whether relations with non-Jewish Palestinians would be better now if Jewish leaders who favored creation of a non-ethnically-based state had prevailed, Ben-Ami did not respond directly. Instead, he affirmed support for a two-state solution and commented: “History has sadly and repeatedly proven the necessity of a nation-state for the Jewish people. J Street today is focused on building support in the American Jewish community for the creation of a nation-state for the Palestinian people alongside Israel — precisely because it is so necessary if Israel is to continue to be the national home of the Jewish people.”

The shortest — and perhaps the most significant — reply came when we asked: “Do you believe it is fair to say that the Israeli government has engaged in ethnic cleansing?”

Ben-Ami responded with one word. “No.”

“They have destroyed and are destroying … and do not know it and do not want to know it,” James Baldwin wrote several decades ago. “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Those who have seen to the devastation of “others” — and have even celebrated overall results of the process — cannot begin to atone or make amends without some genuine remorse. With a pose of innocence, in the absence of remorse, the foundation of J Street’s position is denial of the ethnic cleansing that necessarily enabled Israel to become what it is now, officially calling itself a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Population transfer of Arabs was part of the planning of Zionist leadership, and it was implemented. Benny Morris, the pioneering Israeli historian of the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel, said: “Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”

In a talk five decades ago at Hillel House at the University of Chicago, philosopher Leo Strauss mentioned that Leon Pinsker’s Zionist manifesto “Autoemancipation,” published in 1882, quotes the classic Hillel statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?” — but leaves out the middle of the sequence, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

“The omission of these words,” Strauss said, “is the definition of pureblooded political Zionism.”

The full integrity of Rabbi Hillel’s complete statement — urging Jews not to be “only for myself” — is explicit in the avowed mission of J Street. But there is unintended symbolism in the organization’s name, which partly serves as an inside Washington joke. The absence of an actual J Street between I and K Streets is, so to speak, a fact on the ground. And sadly, the group’s political vision of “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” is as much a phantom as the nonexistent lettered street between I and K in the Nation’s Capital; unless “peace” is to be understood along the lines of the observation by Carl von Clausewitz that “a conqueror is always a lover of peace.” 

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Abba A. Solomon is the author of “The Speech, and Its Context: Jacob Blaustein’s Speech ‘The Meaning of Palestine Partition to American Jews.’” Norman Solomon is the founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, cofounder of RootsAction.org and the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”

 

Repression of Whistleblowers: Making It Easier to Attack Syria

5:36 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Without whistleblowers, the mainline media outlets are more transfixed than ever with telling the official story. And at a time like this, the official story is all about spinning for war on Syria.

Every president who wants to launch another war can’t abide whistleblowers. They might interfere with the careful omissions, distortions and outright lies of war propaganda, which requires that truth be held in a kind of preventative detention.

By mid-week, media adrenalin was at fever pitch as news reports cited high-level sources explaining when the U.S. missile attacks on Syria were likely to begin, how long they might last, what their goals would be. But what about other (potential) sources who have documents and other information that contradict the official story?

It’s never easy for whistleblowers to take the risk of exposing secret realities. At times like these, it’s especially difficult — and especially vital — for whistleblowers to take the chance.

When independent journalist I.F. Stone said “All governments lie and nothing they say should be believed,” he was warning against the automatic acceptance of any government claim. That warning becomes most crucial when a launch of war is imminent. That’s when, more than ever, we need whistleblowers who can leak information that refutes the official line.

There has been a pernicious method to the madness of the Obama administration’s double-barreled assault on whistleblowers and journalism. Committed to a state of ongoing war, Obama has overseen more prosecutions of whistleblowers than all other presidents combined — while also subjecting journalists to ramped-up surveillance and threats, whether grabbing the call records of 20 telephone lines of The Associated Press or pushing to imprison New York Times reporter James Risen for not revealing a source.

The vengeful treatment of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, the all-out effort to grab Edward Snowden and less-publicized prosecutions such as the vendetta against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake are all part of a government strategy that aims to shut down unauthorized pipelines of information to journalists — and therefore to the public. When secret information is blocked, what’s left is the official story, pulling out all the stops for war.

From the false Tonkin Gulf narrative in 1964 that boosted the Vietnam War to the fabricated baby-incubators-in-Kuwait tale in 1990 that helped launch the Gulf War to the reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction early in this century, countless deaths and unfathomable suffering have resulted from the failure of potential whistleblowers to step forward in a timely and forthright way — and the failure of journalists to challenge falsehoods in high government places.

There are no “good old days” to point to, no eras when an abundance of whistleblowers and gutsy reporters thoroughly alerted the public and subdued the power of Washington’s war-makers. But we’re now living in a notably — and tragically — fearful era. Potential whistleblowers have more reason to be frightened than ever, and mainline journalists rarely seem willing to challenge addiction to war.

Every time a president has decided to go to war against yet another country, the momentum has been unstoppable. Today, the craven foreshadow the dead. The key problems, as usual, revolve around undue deference to authority — obedience in the interests of expediency — resulting in a huge loss of lives and a tremendous waste of resources that should be going to sustain human life instead of destroying it.

With war at the top of Washington’s agenda, this is a time to make our voices heard. (To email your senators and representative, expressing opposition to an attack on Syria, click here.) A loud and sustained outcry against the war momentum is essential — and so is support for whistleblowers.

As a practical matter, real journalism can’t function without whistleblowers. Democracy can’t function without real journalism. And we can’t stop the warfare state without democracy. In the long run, the struggles for peace and democracy are one and the same.

Obama’s Willing Executioners of the Fourth Amendment

12:06 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

It’s now painfully clear that the president has put out a contract on the Fourth Amendment. And at the Capitol, the hierarchies of both parties are stuffing it into the trunks of their limousines, so each provision can be neatly fitted with cement shoes and delivered to the bottom of the Potomac.

Some other Americans are on a rescue mission. One of them, Congressman Justin Amash, began a debate on the House floor Wednesday with a vow to “defend the Fourth Amendment.” That’s really what his amendment — requiring that surveillance be warranted — was all about.

No argument for the Amash amendment was more trenchant than the one offered by South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan, who simply read the Fourth Amendment aloud.

To quote those words was to take a clear side: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations have made it possible for some House members from both parties to blow away the fog that shrouds so much tap dancing on Capitol Hill. When the Amash amendment went to the floor, there was no place left to hide.

To their historic shame, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against Amash’s amendment (while 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for it). That’s how the measure lost, 217-205.

The record of the House vote tells us a lot. Top Republicans—including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—voted with Obama policies to keep smothering the Fourth Amendment. So did top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The stench at the pinnacle of GOP power hardly surprises most Democrats. But on civil liberties—as on so many other profound issues—a similar odor is emanating from the upper reaches of Democratic power on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi and Hoyer are far from the only Democrats who have become reflexive servants of indefensible Obama policies.

Consider some of the other Democratic luminaries in the House who voted against the Amash amendment: The Democratic National Committee’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s former chair Chris Van Hollen. The DCCC’s current chair, Steve Israel.

Some of the other Democrats who voted no on the Amash amendment include progressive-aura lawmakers like Ami Bera (Calif.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Joe Kennedy (Mass.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.)

Deserving special mention for their deplorable votes against Amash’s amendment are Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston and Jan Schakowsky from Chicago. Both are vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

I’ve been critical of the Progressive Caucus for enabling Obama’s rightward moves by doing scant pushback. But credit where due: on Wednesday, aside from Jackson Lee and Schakowsky, the other six officers of the Progressive Caucus and a large majority of its more than 70 members supported the Amash amendment. Eloquence in the floor debate came from John Conyers (the lead co-sponsor of the Amash amendment), Jared Polis, Zoe Lofgren and Jerrold Nadler.

Yet they were no match for the White House, with its media spin machine and behind-the-curtain arm twisting.

President Obama has a firm grip on levers of power, and anyone who thinks that his administration has been chastened enough to tread more carefully on civil liberties is engaged in wishful thinking.

While the House has grown somewhat restive, the Senate has remained notably pliant for the surveillance state. An egregious—and, for some, surprising—example is Al Franken, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program when news of it broke in early June. “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people,” Franken said. From his Senate office, one press release after another has been packed with blather like overstuffed sausages.

Franken is now saying he’ll introduce a bill for “transparency” because the public will support the current surveillance programs if they grasp what’s really involved: “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs.” Count on transparency to be a buzzword cloak for more of the same.

Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, has been vastly more candid. At a forum the day before the Amash amendment vote, Wyden said that for surveillance, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, “the authority is essentially limitless.”

An ACLU staff attorney, Alexander Abdo, was driving at the same point when he wrote days ago: “Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the NSA’s constitutional theory is that it has no limit. If the constitution is blind to the collection of our data and limits only the NSA’s later uses of it, then the NSA truly can ‘collect it all’ now and ask questions later. Our emails, phone calls and internet activities would all be very simple for the NSA to collect under the NSA’s theory. But it could go much further. It could put video cameras on every street corner, it could install microphones in every home and it could even remotely copy the contents of every computer hard drive.”

All three branches of the U.S. government are now largely under the control of forces with stunning contempt for basic legal processes required by the Bill of Rights. Mere words and mild reforms from members of Congress may mollify the gullible, but only a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policies can rise to the level of the current historic imperative to restore civil liberties in the United States.

Renouncing the “War on Terror”

2:44 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

As a perpetual emotion machine — producing and guzzling its own political fuel — the “war on terror” continues to normalize itself as a thoroughly American way of life and death. Ongoing warfare has become a matter of default routine, pushed along by mainline media and the leadership of both parties in Washington. Without a clear and effective upsurge of opposition from the grassroots, Americans can expect to remain citizens of a war-driven country for the rest of their lives.

Across the United States, many thousands of peeling bumper stickers on the road say: “End this Endless War.” They got mass distribution from MoveOn.org back in 2007, when a Republican was in the White House. Now, a thorough search of the MoveOn website might leave the impression that endless war ended with the end of the George W. Bush presidency.

MoveOn is very big as online groups go, but it is symptomatic of a widespread problem among an array of left-leaning organizations that have made their peace with the warfare state. Such silence assists the Obama administration as it makes the “war on terror” even more resolutely bipartisan and further embedded in the nation’s political structures — while doing immense damage to our economy, siphoning off resources that should go to meet human needs, further militarizing society and undermining civil liberties.

Now, on Capitol Hill, the most overt attempt to call a halt to the “war on terror” is coming from Rep. Barbara Lee, whose bill H.R. 198 would revoke the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress approved three days after 9/11. Several months since it was introduced, H.R. 198 only has a dozen co-sponsors. (To send your representative and senators a message of support for Lee’s bill, click here.)

Evidently, in Congress, there is sparse support for repealing the September 2001 blanket authorization for war. Instead, there are growing calls for a larger blanket. Bipartisan Washington is warming to the idea that a new congressional resolution may be needed to give War on Terror 2.0 an expansive framework. Even for the law benders and breakers who manage the executive branch’s war machinery, the language of the September 2001 resolution doesn’t seem stretchable enough to cover the U.S. warfare of impunity that’s underway across the globe . . . with more on the drawing boards.

On Tuesday afternoon, when a Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on “targeted killing,” the proceedings underscored the great extent of bipartisan overlap for common killing ground. Republican super-hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham lauded President Obama for “targeting people in a very commander-in-chief-like way.” And what passed for senatorial criticism took as a given the need for continuing drone strikes. In the words of the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, “More transparency is needed to maintain the support of the American people and the international community” for those attacks.

This is classic tinkering with war machinery. During the first several years of the Vietnam War, very few senators went beyond mild kibitzing about how the war could be better waged. In recent years, during President Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan that tripled the U.S. troop levels in that country, senators like John Kerry (now secretary of state) kept offering their helpful hints for how to fine tune the war effort.

The “war on terror” is now engaged in various forms of military intervention in an estimated two-dozen countries, killing and maiming uncounted civilians while creating new enemies. It infuses foreign policy with unhinged messages hidden in plain sight, like a purloined letter proclaiming “What goes around won’t come around” and telling the world “Do as we say, not as we do.”

Political ripple effects from the Boston Marathon bombings have only begun. While public opinion hasn’t gotten carried away with fear, much of the news media — television in particular — is stoking the fires of fear but scarcely raising a single question that might challenge the basic assumptions of a forever “war on terror.”

After a city has been traumatized and a country has empathized, a constructive takeaway would be that it’s terribly wrong to set off bombs that kill and maim. But that outlook is a nonstarter the moment it might be applied to victims of U.S. drones and cruise missiles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The message seems to be that Americans should never be bombed but must keep bombing.

The death of Richie Havens days ago is a loss and reminder. Each of us has only so many days ahead. We may as well live them with deeper meaning, for peace and social justice. To hear Havens performing the song “Lives in the Balance” written by another great musician, Jackson Browne, is to be awakened anew:

I want to know who the men in the shadows are
I want to hear somebody asking them why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they’re never the ones to fight or to die

And there are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

Warfare State of Mind

4:44 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

On a plane circling Baghdad in gray dawn light, a little Iraqi girl quietly sang to herself in the next row. “When I start to wonder why I’m making this trip,” Sean Penn murmured to me, “I see that child and I remember what it’s about.”

After the plane landed at Saddam International Airport, we waited in a small entry room until an Iraqi official showed up and ushered us through customs. Soon we checked into the Al-Rashid Hotel. Back in Washington the sponsor of our trip, the Institute for Public Accuracy, put out a news release announcing the three-day visit and quoting Sean: “As a father, an actor, a filmmaker and a patriot, my visit to Iraq is for me a natural extension of my obligation (at least attempt) to find my own voice on matters of conscience.”

With U.S. war drums at feverish pitch, Sean Penn’s sudden appearance in Baghdad set off a firestorm of vilification in American media. Headlines called him “Baghdad Sean”; pundits on cable news channels called him a stooge for Saddam.

But as the U.S. media attacks got underway, our focus was Baghdad. At the Al-Mansour Children’s Hospital, youngsters lay on threadbare mattresses with haunting dark eyes, mournful mothers sometimes seated next to their tiny beds. As we left, Sean said to me: “You don’t even want someone to slam a door too loud around these children, let alone imagine a bomb exploding in the neighborhood.”

There were meetings with Iraqi officials, including Tariq Aziz, who — with his well-cut suit and smooth talk — epitomized the urbanity of evil. But most of all, we kept seeing children and wondering what would happen to them. The threat of war overshadowed everything.

UNICEF took us to schools in the city, and improvements were striking in the ones being helped by the agency. Sean and I visited the office of UNICEF’s Iraq director, a Dutchman who talked about prospects for aiding the country’s emaciated kids. But what if an invasion happens, we asked. Suddenly, there was silence.

On our last morning in Baghdad, across a breakfast table of pita bread and hummus, I watched Sean write out a statement on a pad. Later in the day, speaking at a huge news conference, he said: “I feel, both as an American and as a human being, the obligation to accept some level of personal accountability for the policies of my government, both those I support and any that I may not. Simply put, if there is a war or continued sanctions against Iraq, the blood of Americans and Iraqis alike will be on our hands.”

****

That was 123 months ago, in mid-December 2002. The invasion of Iraq came a hundred days later.

The resulting tragedies have been so horrific and large-scale that the overall reporting by U.S. mass media scarcely provides a clue. In real time and in retrospect, the dominant cliches about this war have stayed in circular motion, self-referential, within American bubbles.

Occasional, usually dimmed, strobe lights flicker on the real suffering of American soldiers and their loved ones. Numerically much larger, the Iraqi suffering gets short shrift, barely discernible in the shadows of U.S. media and politics.

A just-released report, “Iraq War Among World’s Worst Events,” provides a cogent summary of devastation so extensive and terrible that readers will be challenged to not turn away. In the report, David Swanson offers a 10-year overview of human consequences of moral turpitude for which no American official or propagandist has been held accountable.

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, don’t expect the vast numbers of media hotshots and U.S. officials who propelled that catastrophe to utter a word of regret. Many are busy with another project: assisting the push for war on Iran.

Days ago, speaking of possible actions against Iran, President Obama told an Israeli TV reporter: “I continue to keep all options on the table.” Earlier this month, Vice President Biden told AIPAC’s annual conference that the president “is not bluffing.” Biden said “all options, including military force, are on the table.” Those statements are similar to the threats from President Bush and Vice President Cheney before the invasion of Iraq.

A Letter I Wish Progressive Groups Would Send to Their Members

2:47 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Dear Progressives,

With President Obama’s second term underway and huge decisions looming on Capitol Hill, consider this statement from Howard Zinn: “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.”

With so much at stake, we can’t afford to forget our role. For starters, it must include public clarity.

Let’s face it: despite often nice-sounding rhetoric from the president, this administration has continued with a wide range of policies antithetical to progressive values.

Corporate power, climate change and perpetual war are running amok while civil liberties and economic fairness take a beating. President Obama has even put Social Security and Medicare on the table for cuts.

Last fall, the vast majority of progressives voted for Obama to prevent the presidency from going to a Republican Party replete with racism, misogyny, anti-gay bigotry and xenophobia. Defeating the right wing was cause for celebration. And now is the time to fight for genuine progressive policies.

But let’s be real about our current situation. Obama has led the Democratic Party — including, at the end of the legislative day, almost every Democrat on Capitol Hill — deeper into an abyss of corporate-driven austerity, huge military outlays, normalization of civil-liberties abuses and absence of significant action on climate change. Leverage from the Oval Office is acting as a brake on many — in Congress and in progressive constituency groups — who would prefer to be moving legislation in a progressive direction.

Hopefully we’ve learned by now that progressive oratory is no substitute for progressive policies. The soaring rhetoric in Obama’s inaugural address this week offered inspiring words about a compassionate society where everyone is respected and we look out for each other. Unfortunately and routinely, the president’s lofty words have allowed him to slide by many progressives despite policies that often amount to a modern version of “social liberalism, fiscal conservatism.”

The New York Times headline over its front-page coverage, “Obama Offers a Liberal Vision in Inaugural Address,” served up the current presidential recipe: a spoonful of rhetorical sugar to help the worsening austerity go down. But no amount of verbal sweetness can make up for assorted policies aligned with Wall Street and the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

“At their inaugurals,” independent journalist I.F. Stone noted long ago, our presidents “make us the dupes of our hopes.”

Unlike four years ago, Obama has a presidential record — and its contrasts with Monday’s oratorical performance are stark. A president seeking minimally fair economic policies, for instance, would not compound the disaster of four years of Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury by replacing him with Jack Lew — arguably even more of a corporate flack.

On foreign policy, it was notably disingenuous for Obama to proclaim in his second inaugural speech that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war” — minutes after completing a first term when his administration launched more than 20,000 air strikes, sharply escalated the use of weaponized drones and did so much else to make war perpetual.

Meanwhile, the media hype on the inaugural speech’s passage about climate change has lacked any indication that the White House is ready to push for steps commensurate with the magnitude of the real climate crisis.

The founder of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, Daphne Wysham, points out that the inaugural words “will be meaningless unless a) the Obama administration rejects the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline; b) Obama selects a new EPA administrator who is willing to take action under the Clean Air Act to rein in CO2 emissions from all sources; c) he stops pushing for dangerous energy development deep offshore in the Gulf, in the Arctic and via continued fracking for oil and gas; d) he pursues a renewable energy standard for the entire country; and e) he directs our publicly financed development banks and export credit agencies to get out of fossil fuels entirely.”

The leadership we need is certainly not coming from the White House or Congress. “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” Martin Luther King Jr. observed. The leadership we need has to come, first and foremost, from us.

Some members of Congress — maybe dozens — have shown commitment to a progressive agenda, and a larger number claim a progressive mantle. In any event, their role is not our role. They adhere to dotted lines that we should cross. They engage in Hill-speak euphemisms that we should bypass. Routinely, they decline to directly confront wrong-headed Obama administration policies. And we must confront those policies.

If certain members of Congress resent being pushed by progressives to challenge the White House, they lack an appreciation for the crucial potential of grassroots social movements. On the other hand, those in Congress who “get” progressive social change will appreciate our efforts to push them and their colleagues to stand progressive ground.

When we’re mere supplicants to members of Congress, the doors that open on Capitol Hill won’t lead very much of anywhere. Superficial “access” has scant impact. The kind of empowered access we need will come from mobilizing grassroots power.

We need to show that we’ll back up members of Congress who are intrepid for our values — and we can defeat others, including self-described “progressives,” who aren’t. Building electoral muscle should be part of building a progressive movement.

We’re in this for the long haul, but we’re not willing to mimic the verbiage or echo the silences from members of Congress who fail to challenge egregious realities of this administration’s policies. As Howard Zinn said, our role is to challenge, not fall in line.

Behind the Gushing: Kagan in Context

12:36 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Today, a few hours after I wrote the piece below, many Senate Democrats lauded the new Supreme Court nominee. Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that Elena Kagan “will demonstrate that her primary allegiance is to fairness, justice and the rule of law, not ideology.” Some members of the Judiciary Committee — including Dick Durbin, Al Franken, Ben Cardin and Chuck Schumer — were positively gushy.

And then there was the upbeat response from a leading Republican member of the committee, Lindsey Graham, who offered this sunny comment: “I have been generally pleased with her job performance as solicitor general, particularly regarding legal issues related to the war on terror.”

** ** ** ** **

If President Obama has his way, Elena Kagan will replace John Paul Stevens — and the Supreme Court will move rightward. The nomination is very disturbing, especially because it’s part of a pattern.

The White House is in the grip of conventional centrist wisdom. Grim results stretch from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Mexico to communities across the USA.

“It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” President Obama said in support of offshore oil drilling, less than three weeks before the April 20 blowout in the Gulf. “They are technologically very advanced.”

On numerous policy fronts, such conformity to a centrist baseline has smothered hopes for moving this country in a progressive direction. Now, the president has taken a step that jeopardizes civil liberties and other basic constitutional principles.

“During the course of her Senate confirmation hearings as Solicitor General, Kagan explicitly endorsed the Bush administration’s bogus category of ‘enemy combatant,’ whose implementation has been a war crime in its own right,” University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle noted last month. “Now, in her current job as U.S. Solicitor General, Kagan is quarterbacking the continuation of the Bush administration’s illegal and unconstitutional positions in U.S. federal court litigation around the country, including in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Boyle added: “Kagan has said ‘I love the Federalist Society.’ This is a right-wing group; almost all of the Bush administration lawyers responsible for its war and torture memos are members of the Federalist Society.”

The departing Justice Stevens was a defender of civil liberties. Unless the Senate refuses to approve Kagan for the Supreme Court, the nation’s top court is very likely to become more hostile to civil liberties and less inclined to put limits on presidential power.

Here is yet another clear indication that progressives must mobilize to challenge the White House on matters of principle. Otherwise, history will judge us harshly — and it should.

For more than 15 months, evidence has mounted that President Obama routinely combines progressive rhetoric with contrary actions. As one bad decision after another has emanated from the Oval Office, some progressives have favored denial — even though, if the name “Bush” or “McCain” had been attached to the same presidential policies, the same progressives would have been screaming bloody murder.

But enabling bad policies, with silent acquiescence or anemic dissent, encourages more of them. At this point, progressive groups and individuals who pretend that Obama’s policies merely need a few tweaks, or just suffer from a few anomalous deficiencies, are whistling past a political graveyard.

At the same time, with less than six months to go before Election Day, there are very real prospects of a big Republican victory that could shift majority control of Congress. Progressives have a huge stake in averting a GOP takeover on Capitol Hill.

The corporate-military centrism of the Obama administration has demoralized and demobilized the Democratic Party’s largely progressive base — the same base that swept Nancy Pelosi into the House Speaker’s office and then Barack Obama into the White House. National polls now show Democrats to be much less enthusiastic about voting in November than their Republican counterparts.

The conventional political wisdom (about as accurate as the claim that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills”) is that when a Democratic president moves rightward, his party gains strength against Republicans. But Democrats reaped the whirlwind of that pseudo-logic in 1994 — after President Clinton shafted much of the Democratic base by pushing through the corporate NAFTA trade pact against the wishes of labor, environmental and human-rights constituencies. That’s how Newt Gingrich and other right-wing zealots got to run Congress starting in January 1995.

For progressives, giving the Obama administration one benefit of the doubt after another has not prevented matters from getting worse.

At the moment, U.S. troop levels are nearing 100,000 in Afghanistan.

Massive quantities of oil are belching into the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House has signaled de facto acceptance of a high unemployment rate for several more years, while offering weak GOP-lite countermeasures like tax breaks for businesses.

Nuclear power subsidies are getting powerful support from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, while meaningful action against global warming is nowhere in sight.

The Justice Department continues to backtrack on civil liberties.

And now, if the president’s nomination of Elena Kagan is successful, the result will move the Supreme Court to the right.

Progressives should fight the Kagan nomination.