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by Alexander Cockburn

Not a Team of Rivals At All

A month after he won the White House, Barack Obama is drawing a chorus of approval from conservatives who spent most of this year denouncing him as a man of the extreme left. "Reassuring," says Karl Rove of Obama's cabinet selections. Max Boot, a rabid right-wing commentator, confesses, "I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain." In Murdoch's Weekly Standard, mouthpiece of the neocons, Michael Goldfarb reviewed Obama's appointments and declared that he sees "nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term."

But on the liberal-left end of the spectrum, where Obama kindled extraordinary levels of enthusiasm throughout his campaign, the mood is swiftly swinging to dismay and bitterness. "How ... to explain that not a single top member of Obama's foreign policy/national security team opposed the war?" Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, asked last Monday. She went on, "For Obama, who's said he wants to be challenged by his advisers, wouldn't it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century?"

"How nice, how marvelously nice it would be," wrote the left-wing historian William Blum sarcastically here on the CounterPunch site last week, "to have an American president who was infused with progressive values and political courage." Blum speedily made it clear that in his estimation, Obama is not endowed with these desirable qualities: "He's not really against the war. Not like you and I are. During Obama's first four years in the White House, the United States will not leave Iraq. I doubt that he'd allow a complete withdrawal even in a second term."

Similar sentiments came from another popular left-wing reporter, Jeremy Scahill, who wrote here on Tuesday, "The assembly of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Susan Rice and Joe Biden is a kettle of hawks with a proven track record of support for the Iraq war, militaristic interventionism, neoliberal economic policies and a worldview consistent with the foreign policy arch that stretches from George H.W. Bush's time in office to the present."

Suddenly, a familiar specter is shuffling back under the spotlights. A long piece on Obama's foreign policy advisers recently carried the headline, "Are Key Obama Advisers in Tine with Neocon Hawks who wants to Attack in Iran?" The author is Robert Dreyfuss, a level-headed leftish commentator. He sketched in the political backgrounds of advisers to Obama and concluded that "Tony Lake, UN Ambassador-designate Susan Rice, Tom Daschle, and Dennis Ross, along with leading Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke, close to Vice President-elect Joe Biden or Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton -- have made common cause with war-minded think-tank hawks at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and other hardline institutes."

These Obama-hawks, Dreyfuss gloomily told his readers, reckon that talks with Iran about its nuclear program will fail. On the heels of this failure they urge "a kinetic action" in the form of a savage bombing campaign by the U.S. Air Force.

Criticisms of Obama's foreign policy team are, if anything, outstripped by gloom and indignation over his economic team. The economist Michael Hudson complained recently that Obama was meekly following the advice of banker and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, putting Rubin's proteges in key Obama administration posts: "Larry Summers, who as head of the World Bank forced privatization at give-away prices to kleptocrats; Geithner of the New York Fed; and a monetarist economist from Berkeley, as right-wing a university as Chicago. These are the protective guard-dogs of America's vested interests." More moldy cabbages are being hurled at Obama's picks at the Pentagon, starting with the familiar visage of Robert Gates, already in occupation of the top job, having been put there by George Bush Jr., to replace Donald Rumsfeld.

The obvious question is whether this chorus of political disillusion on the liberal left is of any political consequence. Obama is sensitive on the matter. He defended himself last week by saying that in these dire times, Americans need to be comforted by the installation of familiar and respected figures in the new administration. The polls bear him out. The public is mostly happy with what it has seen thus far. The new president, Obama insisted, will be the man setting the new course.

In his salvoes against Obama's awful economic team, Michael Hudson brought up one ominous parallel. Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, after eight years of Richard Nixon. The hopes of the liberal left were similarly high. Almost immediately, Carter dashed their hopes with hawkish foreign policy appointments.

A year later, Carter was grimly fighting a liberal-left challenge to his re-nomination by the Democrats for a second term. The challenger was Teddy Kennedy. Though Carter beat off the Kennedy threat, he was seriously weakened and lost his reelection bid. One can surmise that one reason Obama has made Hillary Clinton Secretary of State is to head off a Kennedy-type challenge. The trouble with slogans like "change" is that they are like zeppelins. The wind can whistle out of their pretensions with dreadful speed.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   December 12, 2008   (

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