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Tom Engelhardt: The Meaning of a Do-Nothing Election

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Mandate of Hell
How Not to Change the World
By Tom Engelhardt

John Boehner

In the fall of 1948, Harry Truman barnstormed the country by train, repeatedly bashing a “do-nothing Congress,” and so snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in that year’s presidential campaign.  This year, neither presidential candidate focused on blasting a do-nothing Congress or, in Obama’s case, “Republican obstructionism,” demanding that the voters give them a legislative body that would mean an actual mandate for change.

We now know the results of such a campaign and, after all the tumult and the nation’s first $6 billion election, they couldn’t be more familiar.  Only days later, you can watch a remarkably recognizable cast of characters from the reelected president and Speaker of the House John Boehner to the massed pundits of the mainstream media picking up the pages of a well-thumbed script.

Will it be bipartisanship or the fiscal cliff?  Are we going to raise new revenues via tax reform or raise tax rates for the wealthiest Americans?  Will the president make up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or not?  Will it be war or something less with Iran?  And so on and so forth.  It’s the moment the phrase déjà vu all over again was made for.

A Hell of Our Own Making

When a new Chinese dynasty came to power, it was said that it had received “the mandate of heaven.”  We’ve just passed through an election campaign that, while the noisiest in memory, was enveloped in the deepest of silences on issues that truly matter for the American future.  Out of it, a “mandate” has indeed been bestowed not just on Barack Obama, but on Washington, where a Republican House of Representatives, far less triumphant but no less fully in the saddle than the president, faces media reports that its moment is past, that its members are part of “the biggest loser demographic of the election,” and that its party — lacking the support of young people, single women, those with no religious affiliation, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans — is heading for the trash barrel of history.

If true, that does sound like a mandate for something, sooner or later — assuming you happen to have years of demographic patience.  In the meantime, there will be a lot more talk about how the Republicans need to reorient their party and about a possible “civil war” over its future.  And while we’re at it, bet on one thing: we’re also going to hear a ton more talk about how much deeply unhappy Americans — the very ones who just reinstalled a government that’s a senatorial blink away from the previous version of the same — really, really want everyone to make nice and work together.

But isn’t it time to cut the b.s., turn off those talking heads, and ask ourselves: What does election 2012 really mean for us and for this country?

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Peter Van Buren: What They Won’t Talk About (Dept. of Foreign Policy)

6:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Republican & Democrat logos

Image: Donkey Hotey / Flickr

As expected, the deficit and debt were both discussed in the first presidential debate on domestic policy. However, despite this year’s endless American summer and a devastating drought that won’t leave town, climate change wasn’t. What would you bet that it won’t be a significant topic in the final debate on foreign policy either? Only one conclusion seems reasonable: climate change has no place on this American planet.

So far, both presidential campaigns indicate as much.  To a wave of laughter in the final moments of his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Mitt Romney mocked the subject, linking it negatively to the president.  (“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise… is to help you and your family.”)  Obama simply avoided the subject in his.  And that pretty much sums up the situation to date.

Though opinion polls indicate that undecided voters want to hear the candidates’ thoughts on climate change, I’m hardly the first person to note that the subject has gone MIA in the campaign season.  Noam Chomsky, the Nation magazine, Salon’s Andrew Leonard, and Joe Romm of Climate Progress, among others, have all commented strikingly on its disappearance.  But here’s the curious thing: if American debt and deficit happen to be your worry, then climate change should be your subject.

In response to a question about the deficit in the first debate, Romney typically said, “I think it’s, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they’re going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.” Not a bad point really.  Who wants to pile an unbearable burden of debt on future generations who won’t be able to work their way out from under it?  Here would be my follow-up question, however: In that case, what’s “moral” about doing exactly that in terms of the planet — ensuring the release of such quantities of greenhouse gasses that the global “debt” will increase staggeringly?  And here’s the kicker: unlike a financial debt, the planet, the atmosphere, nature, physics will not, as Bill McKibben often points out, be prepared to negotiate a deal.  If Argentina or even the U.S. goes bankrupt, there is always an imaginable path back.  If humanity goes bankrupt on this planet, it’s another story entirely.

Maybe, in fact, the debates have it right: climate change isn’t either a domestic or a foreign policy issue. It’s the whole ball of wax. The total thing.

In her piece “Tough Talk for America” at TomDispatch before the first debate, Mattea Kramer focused on five domestic issues crucial to our lives that she felt certain would not be taken up seriously by either of the candidates.  She was right.  Now, TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, retired State Department officer, whistleblower, and author of the superb We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (just out in paperback), does the same for foreign policy.  Sadly, he’s likely to be right, too. Tom

Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell
Six Critical Foreign Policy Questions That Won’t Be Raised in the Presidential Debates
By Peter Van Buren
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6:24 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

President Obama at a Patriotic Moment

Photo by U.S. Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia

Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief.  The last two presidents may not have been emperors or kings, but they — and the vast national-security structure that continues to be built-up and institutionalized around the presidential self — are certainly one of the nightmares the founding fathers of this country warned us against.  They are one of the reasons those founders put significant war powers in the hands of Congress, which they knew would be a slow, recalcitrant, deliberative body.

Thanks to a long New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” we now know that the president has spent startling amounts of time overseeing the “nomination” of terrorist suspects for assassination via the remotely piloted drone program he inherited from President George W. Bush and which he has expanded exponentially.  Moreover, that article was based largely on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers.”  In other words, it was essentially an administration-inspired piece — columnist Robert Scheer calls it “planted” — on a “secret” program the president and those closest to him are quite proud of and want to brag about in an election year.

The language of the piece about our warrior president was generally sympathetic, even in places soaring.  It focused on the moral dilemmas of a man who — we now know — has personally approved and overseen the growth of a remarkably robust assassination program in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan based on a “kill list.” Moreover, he’s regularly done so target by target, name by name.  (The Times did not mention a recent U.S. drone strike in the Philippines that killed 15.)  According to Becker and Shane, President Obama has also been involved in the use of a fraudulent method of counting drone kills, one that unrealistically deemphasizes civilian deaths.

Historically speaking, this is all passing strange.  The Times calls Obama’s role in the drone killing machine “without precedent in presidential history.”  And that’s accurate.

It’s not, however, that American presidents have never had anything to do with or been in any way involved in assassination programs.  The state as assassin is hardly unknown in our history.  How could President John F. Kennedy, for example, not know about CIA-inspired or -backed assassination plots against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, and South Vietnamese autocrat (and ostensible ally) Ngo Dinh Diem? (Lumumba and Diem were successfully murdered.)  Similarly, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the CIA carried out a massive assassination campaign in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix.  It proved to be a staggeringly profligate program for killing tens of thousands of Vietnamese, both actual enemies and those simply swept up in the process.

In previous eras, however, presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability about the acts.  We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief.

Religious Cult or Mafia Hit Squad?

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William Astore: Hail to the Cheerleader-in-Chief!

6:19 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

F-35 jet. Photo by Rob Shenk.

Let’s start with this: according to the Pentagon, the production and acquisition costs of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, the military’s most expensive weapons program, have risen yet again, this time by 4.3% since 2010 to $395.6 billion. If you’re talking about the total cost of the system, including maintenance and support for the nearly 2,500 planes that will some (endlessly delayed) day be produced for the military, that has now reached an estimated $1.51 trillion, a 9% rise since 2010. All this for a plane that some experts doubt has any particular purpose in the future U.S. arsenal.

At last, however, the House of Representatives seems to have had enough of wasteful spending programs. Perhaps its members also read the recent poll that shows Americans generally support more funds for the Defense Department — until, that is, they are told just how much is spent on defense compared to other budget items. Then, 75% of them (67% of Republicans) back significant cuts, an average of 18%, in that budget to reduce the federal deficit.

Whatever the explanation, last week the Republican-dominated House finally took out the pruning shears and acted with remarkable decisiveness. They sent a bill to the Senate cutting $310 billion from the deficit over the next decade. The F-35 program went down in flames.

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John Feffer: Islamophobia, Obama, and the Art of Acting Muslim

7:01 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(photo: emptyhighway, flickr)

(photo: emptyhighway, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When, in the last years, Marine Corps Intelligence put together a report on the practice of “cultural Islam” in Afghanistan, it noted that “Afghans are a traditionally superstitious culture,” specifically referencing the weight given to dreams and symbols as well as “practices…such as the evil eye superstition.” The “official use only” document noted that the Taliban sometimes plays to “Afghan mystical traditions” in its propaganda, but also uses Afghans’ “fear of God to… turn locals against United States forces.” Through their heavily footnoted 12-page analysis, Marine Intel hoped to provide U.S. troops with a useful primer on Afghanistan’s history, religious beliefs, cultural practices, and social mores to help troops to counteract insurgent “information operations.”

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if you can’t stop your forces from repeatedly blowing up wedding parties, conducting airstrikes on unarmed children, massacring villagers, urinating on dead locals, and burning their holy book, all efforts at employing sophisticated cultural knowledge to win hearts and minds and “counterac[t] enemy propaganda that portrays Coalition forces as oppressive foreign invaders that do not respect Islamic life in Afghanistan” are likely to fail in spectacular fashion. Instead, Americans might be better served by conducting analyses of cultures closer home as TomDispatch regular and co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus website John Feffer does today in his illuminating (and chilling) look at election year Islamophobia in America.

And if you really want to understand Second Wave Islamophobia in all its intricacies and the many peculiarities twenty-first century America — a “superstitious culture” if ever there was one — you need to read Feffer’s new book, Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam. It covers the bizarre American campaign against Muslims, foreign and domestic, real and imagined, from the moment President George W. Bush first brought the word “crusade” back from the dead to this very moment in the Obama age. Someday, this episode in our history will undoubtedly be seen as a kind of American derangement and Feffer’s book will be the Ur-text. Nick Turse

Creating the Muslim Manchurian Candidate
The Right Wing’s Election-Year Islamophobia

By John Feffer

Those who fervently believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim generally practice their furtive religion in obscure recesses of the Internet. Once in a while, they’ll surface in public to remind the news media that no amount of evidence can undermine their convictions.

In October 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a woman called Obama “an Arab.” McCain responded, incongruously enough, that Obama was, in fact, “a decent family man” and not an Arab at all. In an echo of this, a woman recently stood up at a town hall in Florida and began a question for Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum by asserting that the president “is an avowed Muslim.” The audience cheered, and Santorum didn’t bother to correct her. Read the rest of this entry →

William Hartung: Republican Math and the Pentagon Budget

7:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(photo: gregwest98/flickr)

(photo: gregwest98/flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Math has never been my strong suit, but even I can see that the Pentagon — whose officials treat “weapons program” and “cost overrun” as synonyms — has a monster math problem. Not surprisingly, it’s also a place that has never successfully passed an audit. Its top officials have talked endlessly about the giant cuts they are making in future Pentagon planning to fit the changing financial mood of the country. And the media, which seems similarly weak on its math foundations, has been highlighting these claims with headlines featuring major Pentagon “cuts” and significant budget “slashing.”

Only one problem, which former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb put this way recently: “[O]ver the past two years, Defense Department officials… bragged about all the cuts they were making and the risks the country was already taking with those reductions. So by how much did the FY 2012 defense budget — which the president signed on New Year’s Eve — shrink? The answer: not one penny.”

As it happens, weak math skills may increasingly be an American trait. TomDispatch regular William Hartung, author most recently of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, the definitive account of how that company came to lord it over our national security world — you have to read it to believe it — decided to check up on how the Republican presidential contenders were doing when it came to the math basics. I’m afraid that on his report card their grade is a dismal F. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hartung discusses how to manipulate Pentagon budgets, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Throwing Money at the Pentagon
A Lesson in Republican Math
By William D. Hartung

If you’ve been fretting about faltering math education and falling test scores here in the United States, you should be worried based on this campaign season of Republican math. When it comes to the American military, the leading Republican presidential candidates evidently only learned to add and multiply, never subtract or divide. Read the rest of this entry →

Thomas Frank: Why the Tea Party Needs Mitt

8:15 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(image: travelingman, flickr)

(image: travelingman, flickr)

This story originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Ode on American Earnings
A Poem for Campaign 2012

Goldman Sachs ($367,200)
Credit Suisse Group ($203,750)
Morgan Stanley ($199,800)
HIG Capital ($186,500)
Barclays ($157,750)
Kirkland & Ellis ($132,100)
Bank of America ($126,500)
PriceWaterhouseCoopers ($118,250)
EMC Corp ($117,300)
JPMorgan Chase & Co ($112,250)
The Villages ($97,500)
Vivint Inc ($80,750)
Marriott International ($79,837)
Sullivan & Cromwell ($79,250)
Bain Capital ($74,500)
UBS AG ($73,750)
Wells Fargo ($61,500)
Blackstone Group ($59,800)
Citigroup Inc ($57,050)
Bain & Co ($52,500).

Now, if that isn’t a poem that sings the (corporate) body electric, I don’t know what is.  According to the invaluable website, it’s also the list of the top 20 contributors to presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign.  It’s his “people,” so to speak.  And if he weren’t to get the nomination, those involved (or their PACs, employees, owners, and top execs) would be someone else’s people because places like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase — four of whose officials recently held a $2,500-a-person fundraiser for Romney in New York City — just love presidential candidates.  They are simply so much more civic-minded than the rest of us.

As it happens, another must-read ode to our screwy moment has entered our world.  Just out from Thomas Frank (author of the bestselling What’s the Matter with Kansas?) is a riveting new book on the Tea Party and the country.  It’s focus: how for almost two post-economic meltdown years — until, that is, Occupy Wall Street came along — we were left in a land of activists (and Republican operatives and billionaires) promoting a set of positions so wild that, under normal conditions, they might send you to an asylum, not the White House.  It is a movement, Frank writes, “in favor of the very conditions that had allowed Wall Street to loot the world.”

It’s as if, having had your city ravaged by Attila the Hun, you formed a movement in total outrage that essentially begged Attila to take another whistle-stop hop through your wrecked community.  The book, with a title to die for, is Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, and Frank has a little advice for the Tea Party whose life he’s chronicled and whose rank-and-file activists could still help put a quarter-billionaire in the White House to defend his financial betters. Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Stephan Salisbury, How Muslim-Bashing Loses Elections

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Last week, I asked you to consider writing friends, colleagues, relatives, and others to urge them to go to the "subscribe" window at the upper right of TD's main screen, put in their email addresses, hit “submit,” answer the “opt-in” email that instantly arrives in your email box (or, unfortunately, your spam folder), and receive notices whenever a new TD post goes up. (Word of mouth is still the major kind of publicity this site can afford.) A number of you did so and, in the midst of a steamy summer, TD got a nice stream of new subscribers! Many thanks indeed to those who acted.  If you didn’t, but have the urge, please indulge it!  Tom]

Here in Washington, everyone, it seems, has an idea about how to solve Washington’s debt drama. Many Democrats, including the White House, want a “balanced” deal, a $4-trillion grab-bag that mixes spending cuts and new revenues achieved through closing tax loopholes or ending tax breaks. Top Republicans in Congress want all cuts and no tax hikes, while the GOP’s Tea Party wing in the House of Representatives opposes raising the nation’s $14.3-trillion debt ceiling at all, seeing default and economic catastrophe as the chosen path to an American reckoning for a profligate government.

There’s one group, however, we’ve heard little from: Republican presidential candidates. When they’ve spoken up at all, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and the rest have largely ducked, hewing to the party line on the policy battle gripping the nation’s capital. Only Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the flame-throwing leader of Congress’s Tea Party caucus, has loudly rejected any debt ceiling increase unless Democrats agree to a Christmas-in-July deal that would slash spending to the bone and repeal President Obama’s health insurance reform bill. Godspeed, Michele.

Presidential candidates live and die by polling data, and so it’s not surprising they’ve been relatively mum on the debt talks. After all, majorities of Americans in multiple polls support a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (and oppose any meddling with the Social Security system, Medicare, or Medicaid). A GOP candidate who stumped for tax increases in a red-hot state like Iowa could count on kissing his White House dreams goodbye, but going too strongly on the record against revenue raising could be unhealthy in a race against President Obama next year.

On the other hand, Muslim-bashing as a campaign tactic is an absolute no-brainer, a surefire way to win over the far right, get attention, and triumph in elections — or is it? Sometimes, common knowledge is so common that no one bothers to check it out, and sometimes it’s wrong.  So prepare yourself for a surprise when, alone among his journalistic peers, TomDispatch regular Stephan Salisbury explores just how effective railing against Islam has actually been in past election campaigns and the role it might play in 2012. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses the changing feelings of Americans regarding Muslims and Islam in the context of the 2012 election, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Andy Kroll


Islam-Baiting Doesn’t Work 
It Failed in Campaign 2010 and Will Do Worse in 2012 

By Stephan Salisbury

During the 2010 midterm election campaign, virtually every hard-charging candidate on the far right took a moment to trash a Muslim, a mosque, or Islamic pieties. In the wake of those elections, with 85 new Republican House members and a surging Tea Party movement, the political virtues of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a means of rousing voters and alarming the general electorate have gone largely unchallenged. It has become an article of faith that a successful 2010 candidate on the right should treat Islam with revulsion, drawing a line between America the Beautiful and the destructive impurities of Islamic cultists and radicals.

“Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes,” wrote journalist Michael Scott Moore in the wake of the 2010 election. His assumption was shared by many then and is still widely accepted today.

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