Looking back with Obama, and looking forward

I’ve been going back over my old blog entries, I am reminded that I have been forecasting trouble for President Barack Obama with, given that I’ve made this forecast to several audiences over a period of time, a vagueness as to timing.

I will not be resolving that ambiguity today. There is no way I can precisely forecast the moment when a confluence of several factors hits. And some things have played out a little differently than I expected, which is unsurprising. What I will say is that I believe the danger is greater than I thought.

I have been forecasting that a year or so down the road from Obama’s election or inauguration, the United States would still be bogged down in Iraq, the economy would be in a shambles, and that it was going to be very interesting to see how things played out. I both relished the possibility of a significant transformation and feared that revolution would simply replace one set of thugs with another. I also conceded the possibility that the elites whom Howard Zinn describes as having been guiding this country through a series of difficult times, conceding the absolute minimum necessary to the minimum number of people to avoid an insurrection, might pull it off again.

At this moment, the last of these possibilities is not manifest. Everything I see suggests to me that the elite are generally so persuaded that rescuing the financial institutions and guiding automakers through bankruptcy is more than enough to, as some have phrased it, pacify Wall Street, that they will utterly neglect Main Street. I firmly believe that a more fundamental cause than reckless lending and incomprehensible financial instruments of the present economic crisis lies in the great disparities of wealth that both created the opportunity for subprime lending and made it unsustainable. I do not see this problem being addressed.

Rather, I see a rush to rescue the rich while everyone else is left to suffer.

To my great disbelief, the United States does seem to be backing out of Iraq. The government I have called a U.S. puppet has insisted on at least an appearance of withdrawal. It remains to be seen how increasing violence will affect this outcome. But the U.S. is increasing its commitment to what many have called the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander there, acknowledges that the Taliban have made significant strategic gains. McChrystal’s primary military response appears tactical, combined with increased troop levels. His strategic response lies in reconstruction efforts that have so far been a huge boondoggle. Casualties are increasing, and he believe they will continue to rise.

There are two huge problems with our presence in Afghanistan. First, the U.S. has lost sight of its original purpose for being there, which was to apprehend Osama bin Laden, blamed for the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 attacks have been attributed not to the Taliban whom the U.S. now fights but rather to the focus of its rhetoric, al Qaeda. This leads to the second huge problem, which is the presumption of a right for the U.S. to be there. This war cannot be rationalized by Taliban attitudes towards women; these attitudes are a product of local culture rather than of a particular group, and an activist film-making group, Rethink Afghanistan, has documented how U.S. influence has allowed girls to go to school and a few women to exercise political influence but how, overall, the war has made conditions far worse for women.

As casualties mount and the U.S. defeat becomes more apparent, there is little reason to believe the U.S. public will not come to the same conclusion it reached with Vietnam and with Iraq. This won’t just be losing the war the U.S. had already lost in Iraq; it will be losing a second one as well. This, with a military budget of a half a trillion dollars, an amount some have said exceeds the expenditure of the rest of the world combined. (They appear to exaggerate, but only by a little.)

Here lies the confluence of two problems. The U.S. spends exorbitantly bailing out the rich. The U.S. spends exorbitantly on imperialism. Both excite popular anger. Both aggravate a huge U.S. debt. Whether this debt is sustainable is in dispute. And given that U.S. economic statistics are manipulated, the ratio of debt to gross domestic product may not be what it appears. Some, including the U.S.’ biggest creditor, China, have expressed concern. There are moves to reduce world reliance of the dollar as a reserve currency; these don’t appear likely to come to fruition quickly, but if they do, the Chinese will be eating their losses as the dollar loses value, and the U.S. government will lose a considerable portion of the market for its debt.

Now we come to a problem I have not been factoring into my thinking but which has become apparent this week with the “Town Hell meetings.” Garry Trudeau, in his Doonesbury comic, has suggested that the endgame to all this is to discredit the Obama presidency. William Kristol has advised Republicans to “go for the kill” on health care. At this writing, it is far from clear that they will fail.

And whether or not the Republicans, working with “Blue Dog” Democrats, succeed in killing health care reform, their ability to mobilize these angry crowds points to an ugly reality in the United States, that there is a significant conservative base of ignorant, manipulable people who will threaten violence to preserve white wealthy privilege. They voted for George Bush in sufficient numbers that it was possible for him to steal two elections. They are stupid. They are real. They are numerous. They blame immigrants, minorities, and women for their economic suffering rather than the wealthy. They are willing to kill. We ignore this base at our peril.

I am thinking of the Spanish Civil War, in which as I understand it, a three-way conflict was reduced to a two-way conflict because the government preferred fascism to anarchism, because the elite were determined to maintain a position of privilege that anarchists threatened and that fascists enhanced.

We now face a three-way conflict in the United States which has come to the brink of violence at “Town Hell meetings.” One side consists, as always, of the elite, manipulating factions among the public in their contest for power. Republicans have appealed to evangelical Protestants and delivered as much to them as they thought they could get away with. Democrats have appealed to progressives and delivered virtually nothing. Neither evangelicals nor progressives have any plausible alternatives at election time. The mystery, as always, lies in the leanings of the general population, presumably somewhere in between, and always with lots of demagogues citing polls and claiming to speak for the “silent majority.” So few people vote, and they are offered such poor alternatives that elections are no measure. Poll questions are often phrased in ways that reflect the biases of the poll takers. Anyone who thinks they really know how the “general” public feels–to the extent it can be generalized–about the culture war that plagues this country is a fool.

Today, no more than I did two years ago, do I have any idea how this plays out.

“May you live in interesting times.” Whether or not this is indeed an ancient Chinese curse, we most certainly live in cursed times. People are losing their jobs and their homes. Their only hope is to be cannon fodder in a losing war. They are still up in arms about social issues which a few pundits call divisive and distracting. And these times are certainly interesting.