Monday, June 29, 2009

Iran: Setting Dogma Aside for a Little Clarity

Insurgent Iran
and Leftist

By Reese Erlich

June 29, 2009 - When I returned from covering the Iranian elections recently, I was surprised to find my email box filled with progressive authors, academics and bloggers bending themselves into knots about the current crisis in Iran. They cite the long history of U.S. interference in Iran and conclude that the current unrest there must be sponsored or manipulated by the Empire.

That comes as quite a shock to those risking their lives daily on the streets of major Iranian cities fighting for political, social and economic justice.

Some of these authors have even cited my book, The Iran Agenda, as a source to prove U.S. meddling. Whoa there, pardner. Now we're getting personal.

The large majority of American people, particularly leftists and progressives, are sympathetic to the demonstrators in Iran, oppose Iranian government repression and also oppose any U.S. military or political interference in that country. But a small and vocal number of progressives are questioning that view, including authors writing for Monthly Review online, Foreign Policy Journal, and prominent academics such as retired professor James Petras.

They mostly argue by analogy. They correctly cite numerous examples of CIA efforts to overthrow governments, sometimes by manipulating mass demonstrations. But past practice is no proof that it's happening in this particular case. Frankly, the multi-class character of the most recent demonstrations, which arose quickly and spontaneously, were beyond the control of the reformist leaders in Iran, let alone the CIA.

Let's assume for the moment that the U.S. was trying to secretly manipulate the demonstrations for its own purposes. Did it succeed? Or were the protests reflecting 30 years of cumulative anger at a reactionary system that oppresses workers, women, and ethnic minorities, indeed the vast majority of Iranians? Is President Mahmood Ahmadinejad a "nationalist-populist," as claimed by some, and therefore an ally against U.S. domination around the world? Or is he a repressive, authoritarian leader who actually hurts the struggle against U.S. hegemony?

Let's take a look. But first a quick note.

As far as I can tell none of these leftist critics have actually visited Iran, at least not to report on the recent uprisings. Of course, one can have an opinion about a country without first-hand experience there. But in the case of recent events in Iran, it helps to have met people. It helps a lot.

The left-wing Doubting Thomas arguments fall into three broad categories.

1. Assertion: President Mahmood Ahmadinejad won the election, or at a minimum, the opposition hasn't proved otherwise.

Michael Veiluva, Counsel at the Western States Legal Foundation (representing his own views) wrote on the Monthly Review website:

"[U.S. peace groups] are quick to denounce the elections as ‘massively fraudulent' and generally subscribe to the ‘mad mullah' stereotype of the current political system in Iran. There is a remarkable convergence between the tone of these statements and the American right who are hypocritically beating their chests over Iran's ‘stolen' election."

Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, James Petras wrote:

"[N]ot a single shred of evidence in either written or observational form has been presented either before or a week after the vote count. During the entire electoral campaign, no credible (or even dubious) charge of voter tampering was raised."

Actually, Iranians themselves were very worried about election fraud prior to the vote count. When I covered the 2005 elections, Ahmadinejad barely edged out Mehdi Karoubi in the first round of elections. Karoubi raised substantive arguments that he was robbed of his place in the runoff due to vote fraud. But under Iran's clerical system, there's no meaningful appeal. So, as he put it, he took his case to God.

On the day of the 2009 election, election officials illegally barred many opposition observers from the polls. The opposition had planned to use text messaging to communicate local vote tallies to a central location. The government shut down SMS messaging! So the vote count was entirely dependent on a government tally by officials sympathetic to the incumbent.

I heard many anecdotal accounts of voting boxes arriving pre-stuffed and of more ballots being printed than are accounted for in the official registration numbers. It seems unlikely that the Iranian government will allow meaningful appeals or investigations into the various allegations about vote rigging.

A study by two professors at Chatham House and the Institute of Iranian Studies at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, took a close look at the official election results and found some major discrepancies. For Ahmadinejad to have sustained his massive victory in one third of Iran's provinces, he would have had to carry all his supporters, all new voters, all voters previously voting centrist and about 44% of previous reformist voters.

Keep in mind that Ahmadinejad's victory takes place in the context of a highly rigged system. The Guardian Council determines which candidates may run based on their Islamic qualifications. As a result, no woman has ever been allowed to campaign for president and sitting members of parliament were disqualified because they had somehow become un-Islamic.

The constitution of Iran created an authoritarian theocracy in which various elements of the ruling elite could fight out their differences, sometimes through elections and parliamentary debate, sometimes through violent repression. Iran is a classic example of how a country can have competitive elections without being democratic.

2. Assertion: The U.S. has a long history of meddling in Iran, so it must be behind the current unrest.

Jeremy R. Hammond writes in the progressive website Foreign Policy Journal:

"[G]iven the record of U.S. interference in the state affairs of Iran and clear policy of regime change, it certainly seems possible, even likely, that the U.S. had a significant role to play in helping to bring about the recent turmoil in an effort to undermine the government of the Islamic Republic.

Eric Margolis, a columnist for Quebecor Media Company in Canada and a contributor to The Huffington Post, wrote:

"While the majority of protests we see in Tehran are genuine and spontaneous, Western intelligence agencies and media are playing a key role in sustaining the uprising and providing communications, including the newest electronic method, via Twitter. These are covert techniques developed by the US during recent revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia that brought pro-US governments to power."

Both authors cite numerous cases of the U.S. using covert means to overthrow legitimate governments. The CIA engineered large demonstrations, along with assassinations and terrorist bombings, to cause confusion and overthrow the parliamentary government of Iran' Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. The U.S. used similar methods in an effort to overthrow Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.

(For more details, see my book, Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba.)

Hammond cites my book The Iran Agenda and my interview on Democracy Now to show that the Bush Administration was training and funding ethnic minorities in an effort to overthrow the Iranian government in 2007.

All the arguments are by analogy and implication. Neither the above two authors, nor anyone else of whom I am aware, offers one shred of evidence that the Obama Administration has engineered, or even significantly influenced, the current demonstrations.

Let's look at what actually happened on the ground. Tens of millions of Iranians went to bed on Friday, June 12, convinced that either Mousavi had won the election outright or that there would be runoff between him and Ahmadinejad. They woke up Saturday morning and were stunned. "It was a coup d'etat," several friends told me. The anger cut across class lines and went well beyond Mousavi's core base of students, intellectuals and the well-to-do.

Within two days hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating peacefully in the streets of Tehran and other major cities. Could the CIA have anticipated the vote count, and on two days notice, mobilized its nefarious networks? Does the CIA even have the kind of extensive networks that would be necessary to control or even influence such a movement? That simultaneously gives the CIA too much credit and underestimates the independence of the mass movement.

As for the charge that the CIA is providing advanced technology like Twitter, pleaaaaaase. In my commentary carried on Reuters, I point out that the vast majority of Iranians have no access to Twitter and that the demonstrations were mostly organized by cell phone and word of mouth.

Many Iranians do watch foreign TV channels via satellite. A sat dish costs only about $100 with no monthly fees, so they are affordable even to the working class. Iranians watched BBC, VOA and other foreign channels in Farsi, leading to government assertions of foreign instigation of the demonstrations. By that logic, Ayatollah Khomeini received support from Britain in the 1979 revolution because of BBC radio's critical coverage of the despotic Shah.

Frankly, based on my observations, no one was leading the demonstrations. During the course of the week after the elections, the mass movement evolved from one protesting vote fraud into one calling for much broader freedoms. You could see it in the changing composition of the marches. There were not only upper middle class kids in tight jeans and designer sun glasses. There were growing numbers of workers and women in very conservative chadors.

Iranian youth particularly resented President Ahmadinejad's support for religious militia attacks on unmarried young men and women walking together and against women not covering enough hair with their hijab. Workers resented the 24 percent annual inflation that robbed them of real wage increases. Independent trade unionists were fighting for decent wages and for the right to organize.

Some demonstrators wanted a more moderate Islamic government. Others advocated a separation of mosque and state, and a return to parliamentary democracy they had before the 1953 coup. But virtually everyone believes that Iran has the right to develop nuclear power, including enriching uranium. Iranians support the Palestinians in their fight against Israeli occupation, and they want to see the U.S. get out of Iraq.

So if they CIA was manipulating the demonstrators, it was doing a piss poor job.

Of course, the CIA would like to have influence in Iran. But that's a far cry from saying it does have influence. By proclaiming the omnipotence of U.S. power, the leftist critics ironically join hands with Ahmadinejad and the reactionary clerics who blame all unrest on the British and U.S.

3. Assertion: Ahmadinejad is a nationalist-populist who opposes U.S. imperialism. Efforts to overthrow him only help the U.S.

James Petras wrote: "Ahmadinejad's strong position on defense matters contrasted with the pro-Western and weak defense posture of many of the campaign propagandists of the opposition...."

"Ahmadinejad's electoral success, seen in historical comparative perspective should not be a surprise. In similar electoral contests between nationalist-populists against pro-Western liberals, the populists have won. Past examples include Peron in Argentina and, most recently, Chavez of Venezuela, [and] Evo Morales in Bolivia."

Venezuela's Foreign Ministry wrote on its website:

"The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela expresses its firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unleashed from outside, designed to roil the political climate of our brother country. From Venezuela, we denounce these acts of interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt to the maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic Revolution."

From 1953-1979, the Shah of Iran brutally repressed his own people and aligned himself with the U.S. and Israel. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran brutally repressed its own people and broke its alliance with the U.S. and Israel. That apparently causes confusion for some on the left.

I have written numerous articles and books criticizing U.S. policy on Iran, including Bush administration efforts to overthrow the Islamic government. The U.S. raises a series of phony issues, or exaggerates problems, in an effort to impose its domination on Iran. (Examples include Iran's nuclear power program, support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and support for Shiite groups in Iraq.)

During his past four years in office, Ahmadinejad has ramped up Iran's anti-imperialist rhetoric and posed himself as a leader of the Islamic world. That accounts for his fiery rhetoric against Israel and his denial of the Holocaust. (Officially, Ahmadinejad "questions" the Holocaust and says "more study is necessary." That reminds me of the creationists who say there needs to be more study because evolution is only a theory.) As pointed out by the opposition candidates, Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel and Jews has only alienated people around the world and made it more difficult for the Palestinians.

But in the real world, Ahmadinejad has done nothing to support the Palestinians other than sending some funds to Hamas. Despite rhetoric from the U.S. and Israel, Iran has little impact on a struggle that must be resolved by Palestinians and Israelis themselves.

So comparing Ahmadinejad with Chavez or Evo Morales is absurd. I have reported from both Venezuela and Bolivia numerous times. Those countries have genuine mass movements that elected and kept those leaders in power. They have implemented significant reforms that benefitted workers and farmers. Ahmadinejad has introduced 24% annual inflation and high unemployment.

As for the position of Venezuela and President Hugo Chavez, they are simply wrong. On a diplomatic level, Venezuela and Iran share some things in common. Both are under attack from the U.S., including past efforts at "regime change."

Venezuela and other governments around the world will have to deal with Ahmadinejad as the de facto president, so questioning the election could cause diplomatic problems.

But that's no excuse. Chavez has got it exactly backward. The popular movement in the streets will make Iran stronger as it rejects outside interference from the U.S. or anyone else.
This is no academic debate or simply fodder for bored bloggers. Real lives are at stake. A repressive government has killed at least 17 Iranians and injured hundreds. The mass movement may not be strong enough to topple the system today but is sowing the seeds for future struggles.

The leftist critics must answer the question: Whose side are you on?

[Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich covered the recent elections in Iran and their aftermath. He is the author of The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis. (Polipoint Press). In the 1960s, he was one of the Oakland Seven, put on trial for antiwar and antifraft protests.]


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Drones: US Terror by Remote Control

Photo: Village Burying Victims of Drones

Pakistan Report:
Now We See You,
Now We Don't

By Kathy Kelly
Voices in the Wilderness

June 25, 2009

In early June, 2009, I was in the Shah Mansoor displaced persons camp in Pakistan, listening to one resident detail the carnage which had spurred his and his family’s flight there a mere 15 days earlier. Their city, Mingora, had come under massive aerial bombardment. He recalled harried efforts to bury corpses found on the roadside even as he and his neighbors tried to organize their families to flee the area.

“They were killing us in that way, there,” my friend said. Then, gesturing to the rows of tents stretching as far as the eye could see, he added, “Now, in this way, here.”

The people in the tent encampment suffered very harsh conditions. They were sleeping on the ground without mats, they lacked water for bathing, the tents were unbearably hot, and they had no idea whether their homes and shops in Mingora were still standing. But, the suffering they faced had only just begun.

UN humanitarian envoy Abdul Aziz Arrukban warned on June 22nd that the millions of Pakistanis displaced during the military’s offensive against the Swat Valley would “die slowly” unless the international community started taking notice of the “unprecedented” scope of the crisis. (Jason Ditz,

UN agencies and NGOs such as Islamic Relief and Relief International report that many of the persons now living in tent encampments, or squatting in abandoned buildings, or crowded into schools designated as refugee centers, may soon start dying from preventable disease.

Health teams note increasingly frequent cases of diarrhea, scabies and malaria, all deadly in these circumstances, especially for young children. With so many people living so close to each other, these diseases are spreading fast.

Relief groups are concerned that as the monsoon season approaches, in July, these problems will get considerably worse. Monsoons bring regional floods and cause escalating rates of malaria and waterborne diseases. The impact, this year, is expected to be much more severe because so many people are living in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Pakistan’s already rundown health care system, officials report, is now near collapse. Hospitals in northern Pakistan have been overwhelmed, with exhausted doctors, depleted medicine supplies and avalanches of red tape blocking money and medicine for the crisis.

Writing for the Associated Press on June 7th, Kathy Gannon described the men’s ward in the Mardan District Hospital: “30 steel beds lie crammed together, with two-inch mattresses and no pillows. Pools of urine spread on the floor, and fresh blood stains the ripped bedding...The one bathroom for 30 patients stinks of urine and faeces. The toilets are overflowing, the door to one cement cubicle is falling off and a two-inch river of urine covers the cement floor. In one corner, garbage is piled high.”

The annual budget for health care in Pakistan, this year, is less than $150 million, while Pakistan’s defense budget last year came to $3.45 billion, and is expected to reach $3.65 billion next year.

People in Shah Mansoor worry that the international community as well as their own government won’t notice the health care crisis they face. But villagers yet to flee their homes in Waziristan agonize under constant military scrutiny from lethally-armed U.S. surveillance drones.

A villager who survived a drone attack in North Waziristan explained that even the children, at play, were acutely conscious of drones flying overhead. After a drone attack, survivors trying to bring injured victims to a hospital were dumbfounded when a driver stopped, learned of their plight and then sped away. Then it dawned on them that the driver was afraid the drone would still be prowling overhead and that he might be targeted for associating with victims of the attack.

The U.S. drone aircraft can see Pakistan - their pilots in air-conditioned Nevada trailers see the terrain even though they are physically thousands of miles away.

Writing about U.S. Air Force efforts to “meet the voracious need for unmanned aircraft surveillance in combat zones,” Grace Jean notes, in the June, 2009 issue of National Defense Magazine, that the Air Force’s 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, is expanding base operations. “We have 34 video feeds over the battlefield right now,” says Col. John Montgomery, the wing’s vice commander. When operating a drone, Montgomery says, “You are part of the battlefield.” Commenting on the hundreds of combat sorties he flew over Sadr City, in Baghdad, Montgomery said he even knew where people hung out the laundry and when they took out the trash. “I knew the traffic flow for the hours that I could see, and when that changed, I knew it. Once you know the patterns of life, when things are different or odd, that means something’s up, and that gives the battlefield commander, the joint commander on the ground, a heads up.”

On Tuesday, June 23rd, U.S. drones launched an attack on a compound in South Waziristan. Locals rushed to the scene to rescue survivors. The U.S. drone then launched more missiles at them, leaving a total of 13 dead. The next day, local people were involved in a funeral procession when the U.S. struck again. Reuters reported that 70 of the mourners were killed.

Drone operators and their commanders at Creech Air Force Base will become increasingly well informed about the movements of Pakistani people, but meanwhile the U.S. people will have lost sight of war’s human costs in Pakistan.

Now, we're hearing of imminent army operations in South Waziristan that have already forced about 45,000 people to flee the region, joining about two million men, women, and children displaced by fighting in the Swat Valley and other areas. People from Waziristan who flee from their villages, trying to save their lives, trying not to be seen by the omnipresent drones, will likely join the unseen, the displaced people whose lives and hopes escape international notice as they die slowly.

President Obama has taken us into an expansion of Bush’s war on terror, presumably guided by the rationale that his administration is responsible to root out Al Qaeda terrorists. But the methods used by U.S. and Pakistani military forces, expelling millions of people from their homes, failing to provide food and shelter for those who are displaced, and using overwhelmingly superior weapon technology to attack innocent civilians, -- these methods will continue creating terrorist resisters, not defeating them.

If we want to counter Al-Qaeda, if we want to be safe from further terrorist attacks, we'd do well to remember that even when we don’t recognize the humanity of people bearing the brunt of our wars, these very people have eyes to see and ears to hear. They must be asking themselves, who are the terrorists?

Kathy Kelly ( co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence ( This report is posted at her request.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

No Collaboration with Torture, War Escalation

MoveOn: Break
the Silence on
Torture and War

By Tom Hayden
The Nation

June 10, 2009 - Progressives who have been silent on the escalating wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan have a new opportunity to change their stance now that the nearly $100 billion Congressional war supplemental (HR 2346) authorizes suppression of hundreds of torture photographs held by the Pentagon.

The amendment, by Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, is designed to bar the release of photos revealing torture at military prisons during the Bush administration, by exempting them from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

Democrats are in disarray over the issue. According to Congressional reports, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at first approved the Lieberman-Graham amendment, then backtracked after hearing complaints from Representatives Barney Frank, Louise Slaughter and others from the Democrats' liberal wing. In the meantime, Hillary Clinton was dutifully making phone calls to pick off votes from the fifty-one Democrats' who opposed the House version in May.

Groups like, with millions of members and campaign dollars, become crucial during close Congressional votes, either by their presence or by their absence.

When I recently posted an article questioning MoveOn's silence towards the escalating wars, the response of MoveOn's leadership was to question its accuracy and demand corrections from anyone publishing the piece.

I never meant to suggest that MoveOn's executive director explicitly or verbally promised President Obama at a White House meeting that MoveOn would keep silent about the war escalations. What I did write is that MoveOn told Obama they were supporting his domestic agenda, which, in Beltway culture, was a clear message that this former antiwar group would not be opposing the president's military escalation, nor his Predator strikes, nor the civilian casualties, not even his backtracking on torture promises. At that point, MoveOn had not even polled its membership on Afghanistan, Pakistan or torture.

Move.On's continuing silence only speaks for itself. While their internal discussion of Afghanistan and Pakistan unfolds, they at least could express strong opposition to the administration's non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, as well as support for Rep. Jim McGovern's amendment calling for an exit strategy by December.

But now with the amendment pending to suppress the torture photos, the moral pressure to break the silence is increasing. The administration added to its policies of secrecy yesterday by urging a federal court to suppress documents detailing the CIA's videotaped interrogations at secret prisons.

The Obama argument for suppressing the torture photos is specious. The administration claims that their release will inflame greater insurgent hatred against American troops. But the Abu Ghraib torture photos already have served that inflammatory purpose and the current cover-up will undermine confidence that America's secret policies are changing.

This is an administration that once pledged no more supplementals--the spending bills that avoid the scrutiny of hearings. Having reneged on that procedural promise, they now are loading the war appropriation measure with the FOIA exemption amendment, not to mention funds for swine flu and the International Monetary Fund. These administration approaches undermine the deliberative process and weaken the role of the legislative branch.

The real effect of Obama's censorship decision is to dampen any resurgence of antiwar sentiment and public support for an investigation of past crimes. Silence in the face of censorship means collaborating in the cover-up of torture. The political effect is to leave antiwar Democrats under greater pressure to yield than to stand their ground.

Tom Hayden is the author of The Other Side (1966, with Staughton Lynd), The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972), Ending the War in Iraq (2007) and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (2008).

Author's Website:

Author's Bio: After forty years of activism, politics and writing, Tom Hayden still is a leading voice for ending the war in Iraq, erasing sweatshops, saving the environment, and reforming politics through greater citizen participation. Currently he is writing and advocating for US Congressional hearings on exiting Iraq. A more comprehensive bio, going back to the sixties, when he co-founded SDS and protested in the deep south


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cheney's Gambit: A Stronger Far Right Pole

Obama vs. Cheney,
Center vs. Right

By Immanuel Wallerstein
Agence Global, 6/1/2009

On May 21, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a major speech outlining his administration's views on national security. Minutes after he completed his talk, former Vice-President Richard Cheney gave a major speech that essentially denounced Obama's positions on national security. Both speeches were widely covered by the U.S. press, which termed this pair of speeches as a fundamental conflict of values.

In his speech, Obama set out what he presented as a "nuanced" (or "balanced") centrist position on all the most controversial issues, such as the closing of the Guantánamo prison, the use of waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation procedures" on prisoners, and the degree of transparency about present and past decisions concerning the treatment of prisoners. Cheney charged basically that Obama's centrist positions endangered national security. He did this despite the fact, as many commentators noted and Obama himself noted a few days later, Obama was taking positions close to those that President Bush had embraced in his last two years in office.

So, what was going on? Both Obama and Cheney are highly intelligent people, and highly sophisticated political actors. They both knew exactly what they were doing. Politics, as the saying goes, is a tough game. Politicians normally do what they do with two considerations in mind: the search for continued support by the voters in future elections; and the achievement of specific policy objectives. I do not doubt that both Obama and Cheney had this twin pair of concerns in mind. Each obviously felt that his tactics were potentially winning ones. So, in order to understand what was going on, we have to try to discern how each of them analyzed the political situation.

Let us start with Obama, since he obviously has the most immediate power and authority. Obama won the election with the support of almost all voters on the left and a large majority of voters in the center. He won it because of his stand on two basic issues. In 2007, the prime concern of U.S. voters was the war in Iraq. Obama presented himself as a staunch opponent of that war. This was the issue that gained for him support on the left. In 2008, the prime concern of voters shifted to the serious economic downturn. Obama presented himself as a steady hand on the tiller who could restore the U.S. (and the world) economy to a new upturn. This was the main issue that attracted him support in the center.

Since his election, Obama has approached both the issues of foreign policy/national security and the issues of the economy in the same fashion. He has appointed key figures drawn from the center who have recommended centrist policies. He has exuded both prudence and involvement in all the major decisions. In the arena of social issues (the environment, health, education, labor), he has not invested (perhaps not yet invested) the necessary political energy to obtain the legislation that would make possible the major social change he promised his supporters on the left.

Obama seems to think this overall stance will win him (and the Democratic party) the congressional elections in 2010 and then his own re-election in 2012. He is counting on what seems to be Republican disarray and the continuing alienation from the Republican party of centrist voters (principally those who are called "moderate" Republicans). From this perspective, the unremitting far right positions of Cheney are thought to be a great plus for Obama.

As for achieving policy goals, Obama seems to believe that he can tilt U.S. policy in all arenas back from far right to center or even left of center incrementally. He seems to be saying to his voters and the world: Trust me and come back in eight years and look. You will see that things have changed (the mantra of his electoral campaign). My political tactics will obtain the maximum change that is politically possible in the United States at this time. He seems also to be saying that, in order to achieve this incremental change, he can never be brusque in anything he does because, if he is, he will alienate centrist voters and even more important centrist Democratic legislators, without whose support he cannot obtain his incremental goals.

Cheney reasons quite differently. The first thing to notice about Cheney is that, from 2001-2009, he was seldom in the forefront of public debate. The major public figures of the Bush era were Bush himself and Condoleezza Rice. (It is true that Cheney's ally, Donald Rumsfeld, was also a major voice, but Bush fired him in 2007 over Cheney's vociferous objections.)

Cheney preferred to work quietly, behind the scenes, in pushing very aggressively his policy objectives. Cheney's views largely prevailed within the Bush administration from 2001 to 2006. When the Republicans suffered a big defeat in the legislative elections of 2006, Bush shifted position and allowed Condoleezza Rice, aided by Robert Gates, to set the pace - much to the dismay and disgust of Cheney.

Since the election of 2008, both Bush and Rice have been extremely quiet, deliberately. So, to a remarkable degree, has been John McCain, the defeated presidential candidate. Cheney, on the other hand, has become a constant public speaker. He has assumed the role of the leading public voice of the Republican party. More than that, he has called upon the faint of heart to leave Republican ranks. He has applauded the decision of Sen. Arlen Specter to shift his affiliation from Republican to Democrat. He has publicly encouraged Colin Powell and even McCain to do the same. Perhaps George W. Bush will be on this list next.

Most commentators seem to think that, by doing this, Cheney is ensuring the permanent decline of the Republican party. Many Republican politicians, especially the "moderates," are saying so as well. Doesn't Cheney realize this? To think this is to miss the essence of his political strategy.

Cheney believes the odds are that Republicans are going to fare badly in elections for the next four to six years. He thinks the most urgent task is to stop Obama incrementalism from working. The way to do this, he thinks, is to turn U.S. public debate into a center versus (unremitting) right debate. Cheney reasons that, if he does this by shouting loudly and unreasonably, he can force policy outcomes to become a compromise between the already centrist position of Obama and his own. He thinks that this way if we come back in 2016 and look at the outcome, things won't have changed that much at all. He counts on the likelihood that, with a Republican victory in 2016, the country can then resume the ultra-right wing paths Cheney has long advocated and pushed during his years as Vice-President.

Who is right? Obama's incrementalist strategy depends on his continuing popularity. And that in turn depends on the wars and the economy. If the United States policy in the Middle East begins to seem to the American people like a losing quagmire, the left will abandon him. And if the U.S. and the world fall further into depression, and especially if unemployment figures go up considerably, centrist voters will begin to abandon him.

Both negative outcomes are possible, very possible. If either of them happens, and especially if both do, all of Obama's social change policies will go down the drain. And Cheney will have won, hands down. Of course, it is also possible that on the Middle East front and the economic front, results will be more ambiguous - neither great success nor obvious catastrophe. In that case, we may get the social change incrementally, but at best in a watered-down fashion. This is because, by situating himself in the center instead of on the left or at least on the center-left, Obama's tactics have given away a good part of the demands at the outset.

Politics is a tough business. It is also something else. His close political advisor, David Axelrod, recently acknowledged some of these possibilities of negative outcome. He told the New York Times that Obama is "willing to take his chances with the American people." And then he added, "I think he also knows that sometimes you prevail in your arguments and sometimes you don't." When it was suggested to Axelrod that the patience of Americans may not last, he admitted, "That may be. Politics is a fickle business."

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. To contact author, write: These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term. Wallerstein is an endorser of 'Progressives for Obama']


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