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Samantha Power and the Obama Campaign February 26, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Books, Democrats, International Politics, Iraq, United States, US Politics.

Via Normblog, a rather disappointing Sunday Times interview with the very intriguing Samantha Power.Power’s an interesting character. She’s a strong human rights advocate who doesn’t fall into any easy ideological categories. Her opposition to the invasion of Iraq distinguishes her from both the hawkish elements within the current US administration who use the language of human rights to cloak a rather more base military adventurism and the Nick Cohen-ite ‘muscular liberals’ so comprehensively ridiculed in the always brilliant Encyclopedia of Decency. However, she’s by no means a pacifist and her support for military intervention in certain cases puts her at odds with much of what might loosely be described as the broad-left anti-war movement.

Power’s 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is a compelling and illuminating piece of work which analyses the evolution of the international community’s understanding of genocide as a distinct crime, and the responses of various US administrations to it throughout the 20th century. The material on the Kurds is particularly good, specifically in detailing the internal politics driving the State Department’s response to the Anfal campaign.

Her new book, Chasing the Flame, is a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the senior UN diplomat most notable for overseeing the transition of the then East Timor to independence and for his death at the hands of jihadists in a car bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. Even prior to his death Vieira de Mello was a fascinating figure and was profiled in Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists as one of a number of soixante-huitards (the others including Joshka Fischer and Bernard Kouchner) who came to a difficult accomodation with the defence of human rights and the need for humanitarian interventionism in the 40 years since the riots of the summer of ’68. Berman’s review of Power’s book can be found here:  ironically, his main criticism of the work

But the biggest difficulty, or so my reading of Chasing the Flame leads me to suppose, is a problem of the imagination. A philosophical issue. It’s the same problem that keeps popping up in Power’s earlier book as well: an inability to imagine why some people might set out to destroy whole populations. Vieira de Mello participated in U.N. missions that followed any of several logics—the logic of peacekeeping, or of establishing safe havens for the persecuted, or of providing humanitarian aid. But each of those logics presumes that if horrific conflicts have broken out, it is because otherwise reasonable people have fallen into misunderstandings and a neutral broker like the U.N. might usefully intercede. Yet conflicts sometimes break out because one or another popular political movement has arrived at a sincere belief in the virtue of exterminating its enemies, and horrific ideologies lie at the origin. Neutral mediations in a case like that are bound only to obscure the reality—which has happened several times over, as Power usefully demonstrates.

is precisely the aspect of Berman’s own writing which is the weakest. Particularly in Terror and Liberalism, but also elsewhere, he has a tendency to move from relatively well-considered fact-based arguments to vague theorising about ideology – in particular about the ‘irrationality’ of certain ‘death-cults’ – which isn’t really supported by convincing evidence and which one suspects is only thrown in to allow Berman to make spurious analogies between Fascism, Stalinism and (for want of a more accurate term) Jihadism.

While Chasing the Flame isn’t published (this side of the Atlantic) until next week, I hope it will examine in some detail how possible the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq was at the time of Vieria de Mello’s death. Recent books like Imperial Life in the Emerald City and The Occupation suggest that the reconstruction efforts were always doomed to failure, due to the, at best, incompetence and, at worst, criminal and deliberate negligence of the Coalition Provisional Authority. However, what the argument that the current morass in Iraq was the inevitable and unavoidable outcome of the invasion doesn’t consider is what might have happened had the initial reconstruction effort been headed up by the United Nations rather than Paul Bremer and co. It’s something of a pointless debate, of course: we have no real way of knowing what might have happened had things been otherwise, and it certainly doesn’t assist in considering a possible solution to the present situation. However, it’s an argument worth having, to inform future questions of military intervention (however unlikely these may be in the short term).

What’s so disappointing about the Sunday Times piece, though, is that there’s so little in it. Power’s close involvement with the Obama campaign certainly cause me to pay closer attention to his campaign (although her somewhat star-struck descriptions of him in the interview do tend to grate). However, nowhere in the article is the question of what US foreign policy under an Obama administration might look like, particularly in the area of human rights and humanitarian intervention. That said, her presence is still something to keep an eye on in the course of the campaign and certainly if Obama manages to win the Democratic nomination and becomes an actual Presidential candidate.

Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on podcast. The death of the political discourse or just another good excuse to switch over to real debate? November 21, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democrats, Republicans, United States, US Media, US Politics.

Check it out. Now available for free in the iTunes Store podcasts from a roster of the Fox right-wing. And what a disappointment they are, or at least those I’ve signed up to so far. Now there are those of you who will say, but WBS, surely you realise how poor this discourse is? But I always enjoyed the song ‘Armadillo Man’ by late lamented Microdisney about the anti-Communist who goes to Russia during the height of the Cold War and as the lyrics put it: “Least he went to see the other side”

Also I hate canons. I hate being told that if one is of the left one should only read this that or the other. Nor am I just dipping in and out in order to be vicariously upset. I don’t upset easily – not any more anyhow, and there are few enough opinions on the right that I find I can dismiss out of hand. But I do think it’s vital to understand and engage. Problem being that for understanding and engagement one needs someone of different views to be willing to extend the same courtesy. Which is where these podcasts fall apart on first inspection.

Bill O’Reilly in his Talking Points (you may need iTunes to be running) podcast of 16/11 (drawn from his TV show – if you want the radio broadcasts they’re available too, but ask yourself, having heard the ‘Talking Points’ do you really, really want to listen to an hour of his show?) making a perfectly reasonable statement about the upcoming O.J. Simpson program to be broadcast by the Fox Broadcasting Channel that has an interview with Simpson in which he unburdens himself of the opportunity to demonstrate how he would have murdered his wife, had he done so. O’Reilly, like myself, is non-too-fond of the idea. However, O’Reilly, unlike myself, takes this as an opportunity to berate those with so-called “San Francisco values” who he thinks are ultimately responsible for the program. Er…no, I don’t think so. Anyone with any sensitivity whether left centre or right would consider the idea of such a program well beyond the bounds of taste. Whether I would ban it is a different matter. I feel that Simpson is creating his own particular hell on earth and if this is just another building block in that edifice I’m not going to intervene.

Still, a time also for more than rueful smiles when O’Reilly castigated Fox for producing the program and recommended that his listeners do as he would ‘boycott’ their products and TV offerings. Quite a good idea many would say…but hold on…wait just a second there mister…for could it be that this is precisely the same Fox that presents one Bill O’Reilly to an all too suspecting world? Why yes, yes it would be or as wiki so helpfully notes:

“O’Reilly’s television show, The O’Reilly Factor, is routinely the highest-rated show of the three major U.S. 24-hour cable news channels (CNN, FOX News and MSNBC). The show is taped late in the afternoon at a studio in New York City and airs daily on the FOX News Channel at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time”.

This provides for an enormously entertaining follow up show 17/11 where he ties himself in knots attempting to deflect all blame from himself when pointed out that Fox Broadcasting and Fox News are – er – arms of the same corporation. His deadly riposte? Quote – well paraphrase actually “no they’re not because they’re not the same company and the interview isn’t produced by Fox News’.

And he castigates secular progressives for their moral relativism?

But interesting to note Mark Furhman who was involved in the original case has somewhat more scruples and is reported as likely to drop HarperCollins (another arm of the Murdoch empire) if the OJ book goes ahead. And so would if I were in that position and had had the temerity to raise it as an issue in the first place. Fine to lambaste Fox Broadcasting. I agree with that. But to pretend that he is in some sense outside the Fox ‘family’ is fatuous. How to have avoided this situation, and to have incidentally lent credibility to himself? Why to come out and say – “despite (or because of) the fact I work for one of the Fox companies I find this reprehensible”. One wonders why he didn’t do that.

Whatever the virtues or vices of San Francisco values, my God, they could hardly be worse than the O’Reilly handle of reality.

Meanwhile the Sean Hannity Show. Well, what to say really? On the 14/11 podcast Sean (a good Irish name too, just like O’Reilly) presents us with an interesting interview with MA Governor Mitt Romney. Good man, Sean. Romney is a real ‘Reagan democrat’, socially conservative with a small c, small government but not going to cut government programmes too much etc, etc. And what is he saying? That Bush got it largely wrong, that the Republicans have lost their way and so on and so forth. A civilised and useful ten or so minutes. Hannity is precise, even pointing up the divergence between Romney and some of the base. Fair enough.

The next day Hannity interviews Representative Charlie Rangel, Democratic nominee to head up the Ways and Means Committee in the House, or ‘this powerful committee’ as Sean keeps reiterating. This is far from a civilised 26 minutes. Bad man, Sean. Hannity persistently interrupts, refuses to allow Rangel to finish sentences, changes the question on the trot, demands answers before Rangel has had a chance to put his case and so forth. And continually he charges Rangel with evading the issue, hedging and so on.

I don’t want to go all MediaMatters.org on this and the transcripts will no doubt be put up on the net before long if you can’t spare the time to listen to it.

But, my point is that Hannity is, to any reasonably non-partisan observer (and I have to say that there were issues with both Romney and Rangel that demanded closer attention whatever side of the political divide you stand on) an appallingly partisan interviewer. Dismally so, considering Romney’s message is not – truth be told – that strikingly different from that of Rangel. But even were it wildly divergent it would be nice if there was at least some meeting of minds, some honesty to the exchange rather than a “beggar my neighbour” approach. And Rangel deserves to be fully questioned, he was evasive on certain issues. But there is a difference between a forensic interview and a self serving exchange.

And curiously what also comes across is not how powerful Hannity was, but instead how weak. This is the best he can do? Rhetorical fillibustering in order to prevent the other guy from speaking? It’s lame and it’s rather pathetic and the political discourse demands better. It also sounds as if Hannity doesn’t quite understand either the scope of Rangels new job or the questions he’s asking. Curious stuff.

Thankfully there is better. Much much better with the sort of conversation which those of us from whatever point on the spectrum can get our teeth into and learn a little – which surely is the object of the enterprise? You want round table discussion between liberals and conservatives – and I know I’m always namechecking them, but really, why not? Just go to KCRWs Left Right and Centre. Strangely I’m not a huge fan of the left representative Bob Scheer (as you’ll have perhaps noted here), and I’m not crazy about Ariana Huffington either, but they do well enough to keep me listening for half an hour each week. As I’ve previously noted KCRW’s To The Point is even better. Warren Olmey hosts a program that allows for the sort of insightful discussion approach from all points on the political compass on any given topic. To have even half an understanding of US politics (and I’m always aware of how difficult it is to truly ‘translate’ or map different systems) this is essential. And why now? Because like it or not, as the Home page on this blog puts it so eloquently (that’s more smiffy’s doing than mine I hasten to add), this is a significant period of change where the US is going to shape the political discourse for decades. We need to know this stuff, to know what’s coming down the line. No better guides are available.


By the by as you’ll no doubt have noticed we have a new contributor to the CLR, further extending the range of viewpoints here.

Welcome aboard franklittle.

What did you before the (Iraq) War? Or why this ‘litmus test’ does the left no service at all… November 8, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democrats, Iraq, Republicans, The Left, The War On Terror, Tony Blair, United States, US Politics.

Following on from smiffy’s post yesterday I have to say I’m worried about the war. And that’s odd. Odd because it’s already four years in the past, superseded by the chaos that characterises Iraq and further superseded by other events. The main players are, as previously noted, already moving towards the exit, Blair first, Bush sometime after. That age, for what it was worth, is drawing to a close, the Congressional and Senate Elections of the past forty eight hours already setting a stamp on that and looking towards a new period, one where the certainties of the Republican hegemony are replaced by the rather less exciting but rather more congenial realities of 50/50 political culture within the US, one which holds at least the potential for moderation and consensus. Pelosi, thy hour has come.

But the War, back to the War.

Listening to Left, Right and Centre on the KCRW podcast and talking to a British socialist on a visit here from the UK I was struck by how many people on the left are suffering from a litmust test. The litmus test is the position in relation to the War. Was one pro-Invasion or not?

On KCRW on the Left, Right and Centre discussion show Robert Scheer of truthdig.com, a veteran leftist, was discussing the Presidential prospects of Barak Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, and was asking (rhetorically) what his stance on the war was now? Obama has very slightly modified his approach to the war since his passionate initial opposition to the invasion, and is now not entirely sure about pulling the troops out. Hence Scheer doesn’t support him – at all – regardless of his position on other issues. Now I really don’t understand this. There are two (or perhaps three) separate issues at play here. First is support for the War. A position I took and which I think was almost entirely incorrect in retrospect. Secondly support for the aftermath. That I didn’t take. The instant that the serious looting broke out was the point at which it was clear the enterprise was even more unhinged than it had previously seemed. Finally the contemporary situation. Pull the troops out? Not sure, it’s a bad situation but it could be worse, but I’m tending towards the US recognising reality and ceding to an international and hopefully locally recruited force. This is a hell of a risk, a sort of pass the parcel where everything has to come right simultaneously, i.e. that there is an Iraqi force strong enough to maintain order and/or Syrian or Iranian or Turkish or who knows who troops who can come in as monitors/observers but not occupiers. I can’t see it working, in fact I can’t see anything working really – or at least not really working. But each issue has to be judged on it’s own merits. And doubt seems to me to be as good a rule of thumb as any.

US, and more marginally UK, troops in Iraq were almost inevitably going in the long term to work counter to the intentions of those who put them there. Had the alliances with the Europeans been maintained, had the war been delayed to allow inspections (which would, as we now know, have found nothing) or more pragmatically had a deal been cut with Saddam (unpleasant but resulting in a peaceful transition to a more broad based regime) then it is possible that the use of UN mandated troops would have been a viable outcome. That’s a lot of ‘had’s’ and even cursory analysis indicates how difficult, if not impossible, it would have been for the Bush White House to have implemented them, high on it’s own ‘only remaining superpower’ rhetoric.

But listening to Robert Scheer it was clear that the only issue that mattered was Iraq.

As interesting in it’s own way was a discussion I had with a British socialist last week (now in his seventies) who literally loathed the Labour party, Blair and, perhaps most surprisingly Gordon Browne. This was a person who should – by dint of his own experience on the left – on any serious reckoning be able to disentangle the past from the future, and yet is locked into a worldview that somehow is coloured in perpetuity by the ‘litmus test’. For him Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were now entirely the same. Where to go next I asked? The answer was the ‘young’ people. Well, I’ve heard that song before and what I’ve always noticed is that young people tend to get older, that those who are older tend to dismiss or ignore the young and as with arteriosclerosis a certain conservatism tends to develop even in the very best of us. They may well be the future, but who knows what sort of a future that will turn out to be.

Original sin, it’s called. One which is almost impossible – well, in the eyes of those who regard it as a sin as effectively impossible – to wash away. And that’s a mistake to my mind.

Because just like my interlocutor’s appeal to the youth of today, who somehow will be wiser and more far seeing than the youth of yesterday, to posit that a single event and the response to that event is somehow the hinge or pivot upon which all future strategies must be determined is counter intuitive in the extreme. If only because ultimate authority and sanction for the War remained with a very small group of individuals, all of who had different motivations, not all necessarily ignoble but were clearly wrong in execution. Not one of the millions who marched could prevent the war – because we live in representative democracies. One can argue that individual MPs and Congressmen and women should have voted against. Yet, yet, yet. The nature of the Saddam regime was such that an action that supported the status quo could also be judged as morally questionable – and incidentally one of the reasons I gave critical support for the invasion, amongst others was Andrew and Patrick Cockburn’s excoriating and excellent analysis of the regime Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein – ironic then that they took the anti-War side).

Were there alternatives? I often wonder about this. Again in retrospect I think so but not necessarily the ‘first do no harm option’.

Listening to Oliver Kamm on a Little Atoms broadcast from last year he was talking about the anti-War movement and while noting the sincerity of the vast majority of those involved (big of him) on the marches he believed that the “nearest [he could] think of to a really thorough going anti-War case that might have made sense was the position of US socialist Michael Walzer of Dissent magazine who argued that inspections should be given time to work and in order to take a consistent anti-War position the movement should not argue for a respect for sovereignty but needed to a more invasive movement, a humanitarian interventionist movement under international authority”. Kamm dismisses this since he considers that the international authority i.e. the UN had already failed. Yet is he right? To my mind Walzers position is one which could have led to a further constricting of the Saddam regime without getting hung up on the old ‘sovereignty’ issue – one which the left, of all forces, should have least consideration and regard for. I wish I had known more about it at the time – but even had I known the sum total of it’s impact on the situation would have been zero – whatever way one plays out the situation it is hard to credit that any action external to the Oval Office would have halted the rush to war – a judgement that Tony Blair made and unfortunately has left him on the wrong side of history.

But the point is that the past cannot always be the arbiter of the future. People, as smiffy has noted, took different sides. But that shouldn’t be a bar to working with people in the future or questioning their sincerity whatever their position was (by the way, if I have one slight divergence of opinion with what smiffy wrote yesterday it is that many ‘muscular’ liberals bought into, or were seduced by, the idea of US omnipotence and competence for genuine reasons, they genuinely believed that the US intervention would tip the balance towards a peaceful Iraqi polity, that the US would be able to contain the situation and would have learned from the debacle in Vietnam. Unfortunately if one were to posit the worst possible outcome at that time from the invasion the current situation would be hard to credit for many ‘muscular interventionists’. And I too, up until the looting, never suspected how inept the leadership and management of the US administration would actually be in practice in the post-Invasion period. Catastrophic is not an overstatement of the situation. ).

Finally, today’s events in the US are important. The old jibe about the Republicans and the Democrats being simply two sides of the coin strikes me as incorrect. To pick three issues at random minimum wage, stem cell research, taxation, the parties diverge considerably, even above and beyond Iraq. But more importantly I’m hoping that the hegemonic tone of the Washington Republicans will be replaced by a more emollient, more pluralistic message. A finely balanced Senate and Democratic majority in Congress can change this tone, shift the discussion away from the absolutism that has characterised debate up until now on national security issues and so forth. I’d also hope that the libertarian right, who have been suspiciously and disappointingly silent on a broad range of issues from national security to social issues will regain their voice and perhaps see an opportunity to move the situation forward in areas where they and Democrats can make common cause.

Also by the way. Watching the Bush press conference it struck me how tetchy he appeared – loss does not befit him – and yet curiously he was somewhat more forceful in enunciating his message. Remarkable times.

One of our aircraft is missing. Air America and the paradox of “liberal” radio… October 17, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Air America Radio, Democrats, Republicans, The Left, United States, US Politics.

Okay, I’m one of those who almost listens to Air America. Well, not to it, precisely, more like to the free podcasts which seem to consist more or less exclusively of the Media Matters guys dropping in for a chat. Bad news then in the Guardian, Air America has gone bust…

But I don’t much like it. And why don’t I much like it? For the same reason I don’t like Fox, or right-wing talk radio, and by the by I’m starting to find Jon Stewart’s Daily Show a bit wearing (although in fairness Stewart actually engages with those he disagrees with). When everyone shares more or less the same liberal left viewpoint it becomes dull, worthy, predictable.

Air America typifies this. Listening to people work themselves up about Bill O’Reilly is entertaining for a time. And in truth they do do more than that. But however much I like politics, I’m not much interested in naked partisanship – even if I agree.

I still enjoy the Media Matters contributors who – to my mind – do a good job of parsing out bias in the right-wing media. But I prefer National Public Radio a lot more. For a start the level of discussion on shows such as To the Point and Left, Right and Centre is much higher, less partisan. It tends to involve more people from various points on the political spectrum in debate.

And I hate the idea that it’s only the left, or only those who revere a canon, or whatever that has people of sincere and intelligent goodwill worth listening to…

That doesn’t mean that I agree with the conservative voices, or even the centrist voices, but it seems to me to be a more honest way to deal with a complex world. Furthermore I think the way the contemporary US political situation is shifting indicates the dangers of believing that one wing or another can achieve a truly hegemonic grip on a polity. For about five years both on right and left there seemed to be a belief abroad that the game was up for progressive politics in the US. I always thought that was a dangerously stupid analysis. The US electorate and society is much more evenly balanced between left and right than that, and deserves more credit than it often gets.

Take the upcoming elections, chances are that the Democrats will only win one house. Not bad, that still leaves them the option of stirring it up in Washington, and worth pointing out with my non-partisan hat that such a result would be good for both Republicans and Democrats, hegemonic grips on power corrupt and corrupt hegemonically.

And yet, I’m still struck by how Air America hasn’t caught on. It’s difficult to understand why. Perhaps it’s that those who might be the audience share the same concerns as myself – but I doubt it. I’ve met and read too many partisans of the left to believe that. Probably it’s because there just isn’t a need for it. I hate to invoke market forces, but simply put there’s no particular niche to be filled. What NPR doesn’t satisfy then Air America will, or the internet and the horribly termed ‘blogosphere’.

Incidentally one of my favourite quotes is that news is the illusion by which the middle classes convince themselves they control the world… Perhaps that’s the true problem with Air America. It’s got news, but news is a minority interest, it’s talky enough, but there’s only so much talk we can take without getting bored (or patronised), it’s too partisan when the partisan is really the end of debate…

And perhaps I’m being unfair to Air America as well. Al Franken has a listenership in the millions. Half that of Bill O’Reilly, admittedly. But that’s hardly the point. There is some audience there. So, I’d be sorry if Air America did fade out entirely.
But listen to it? Not likely, mate…

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