Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pentagon warns of US military intervention in Mexico’s war on drugs

Pentagon warns of US military intervention in Mexico’s “war on drugs”

By Kevin Kearney

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The United States Joint Forces Command (USJFC), charged with anticipating global threats to US imperialism, issued a report last November entitled “Joint Operating Environment 2008 naming Pakistan and Mexico as the nations whose governments are most likely to undergo what it termed “rapid collapse.” This term goes largely undefined, beyond the assertion that it “usually comes as a surprise, has a rapid onset, and poses acute problems.”

While Pakistan has been a key focus of US imperialism, subjected to an on-going military intervention for several years, Mexico’s mention seems unusual at first glance. The report concedes that while the possibility of a sudden collapse of the Mexican government is less likely than in Pakistan, “….the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.”

Ominously, the study concludes: “Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.” The immense implications of this statement become clear when one considers that the USJFC—one of the nine branches of the Department of Defense—controls nearly all conventional military forces based in the continental United States—a force of 1.6 million.

By identifying possible “chaos” in Mexico as a threat to US homeland security, the study implies that direct military intervention is a distinct possibility. The report goes so far as to assert that every branch of the Mexican state is under threat of succumbing to the all-consuming influence of drug traffickers and may therefore require the direct oversight of the US military, giving some clue as to the scope of such an intervention.

Closer examination reveals that the conclusions of the USJFC study are of a piece with US involvement in President Felipe Calderon’s two-year effort to brace for a mass political radicalization in Mexico by militarizing the country under the guise of a “war on drugs.”

Calderon’s “war” on the long-standing and complex socio-economic problem of drug trafficking was launched on December 8, 2006. Far from a plan to curtail the drug trade or protect the people from violence, the operation consisted of little more than a mass deployment of military units across the country. To date, nearly 50,000 troops—including federal police—have been deployed with an official mandate to “use all necessary force.”

The policy has led to an increase in bloodshed throughout the country. The number of violent deaths attributed to the war has actually doubled every year since the policy was initiated, reaching a bloody crescendo at the close of 2008 with an estimated 5,700 deaths in a one-year period.

Although the international media is fixated on the scale of the violence and on particularly sensational instances—like the beheading of several soldiers in Guerrero state in December—little effort has been made to understand how and why things have gotten so out of hand. The result is a much distorted picture which portrays Mexico as a “wild west” environment where vicious drug dealers indiscriminately terrorize a helpless population that cries out for military assistance.

There is, to be sure, a public outcry, but it is frequently a general outcry against the increased level of violence that the militarization project has brought into being.

Emilio Alvarez Icaza, president of the Commission for Human Rights centered in Mexico City, said last December that the government “must revise its strategy against the cartels and pull the military out of the action because the military is trained for the extreme use of force and for national defense.”

Last year alone, the government received well over 500 complaints of human rights abuses against the military forces prosecuting the war on drugs, according to the Mexican daily La Jornada. Moreover, the secretary of defense, reports that complaints against the military for wrongful death and injury have more than doubled during the drug war. Significantly, not a single soldier has been punished since Calderon assumed the office of the presidency.

Complaints, like the case of Sayra Guadalupe Arzáte, who, according to La Jornada, was shot to death at a military checkpoint, are eerily similar to the atrocities suffered by civilians under the US occupation of Iraq. Stratfor—a web site with intimate connections to the CIA—concedes: “As it pursues the cartels, the Mexican military is more like an occupying power chasing local insurgents than an agency of the central government enforcing the rule of law.” Revisiting its comparison to on-going imperialist wars, it continues: “Organized criminal assailants in Mexico, like insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, are difficult to distinguish from innocent civilians and can mount attacks then quickly blend into the population.”

The drug trade is not a new phenomenon. It flourishes under conditions of great poverty and desperation. It is a public health problem that will never be eradicated under capitalism and certainly not by means of “war.”

The war on drugs was launched in the midst of a political crisis. Winning the presidency by the smallest margin in Mexican history—and in an election marred by accusations of fraud—Calderon, the candidate backed by US imperialism, took office amid popular distrust and hostility. His opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), challenged the election results by means of a mass anti-Calderon mobilization in which millions repeatedly converged on Mexico City’s center, converting it into a semi-permanent encampment and repeatedly shutting it down over a period of months.

Simultaneously, a teachers’ strike in the state of Oaxaca threatened to grow into a full-scale insurrection, drawing in large sections of student youth, workers and peasants. The protesters eventually formed an umbrella group called the APPO, which took control of the city center and held it for months.

At the time, Mexico had the world’s fourth largest population of millionaires, while 30 million scraped by on 22 pesos (barely $2) or less a day. Even these dire economic conditions are increasingly overshadowed by the gathering impact of the world economic crisis.

Mexico is the world’s 13th largest economy. As a party to the North American Free Trade Agreement and one of the largest US trading partners, Mexico is particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the US economy—the epicenter of the world financial crisis—and will likely suffer more than any other Latin American country this year.

The United States is the largest single source of foreign direct investment in Mexico. Even more importantly, the United States is the destination of more than 80 percent of Mexico’s exports. Moreover, nearly all of Mexico’s remittance income (about $23 billion annually) comes from the criminalized Mexican immigrant population struggling in the US. The Mexican Central Bank anticipates a 2.5 percent decrease in remittances this year, according the Associated Press.

Some 80 percent of Mexico’s banks are owned by foreign companies, leaving the country exposed before the collapse of the international credit market. Since the onset of the credit crisis, foreign capital has fled Mexican investments and banks seeking safety in wealthier countries.

Oil exports provide Mexico with nearly 40 percent of its annual revenues and the price of this commodity has plummeted over the last several months due to global economic slowdown.

Without question, the financial crisis will translate into a steep drop in employment and income in a country where the majority of the population already lives in poverty. The Mexican government estimates that the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) will slow from 1.8 percent in 2008 to 0.9 percent in 2009. According to El Universal, the unemployment rate increased from 4 percent to 4.8 percent in November 2008, the largest increase in unemployment of all the nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, Mexico’s unemployment rate is forecast to be between 5.15 and 5.3 percent in 2009 and, of course, it could be much higher.

Moreover, the peso has been devalued by about 22.6 percent since early 2008, forcing the Mexican Central Bank to inject about $14.8 billion into currency markets in an effort at stabilization. As a consequence, inflation is rising, affecting already high food prices. The government reported a 12-month inflation rate of 6.2 percent through mid-November, which, according to El Universal, is the highest inflation rate in Mexico since 2001. The Economist put inflation higher still at around 6.5 percent in 2008, nearly double the 3.8 percent rate for 2007.

Under such conditions, many millions will likely lose access to the most basic necessities, including food. This is a frightening prospect for the ruling elite of Mexico and its allies in Washington, considering that political opposition in Mexico has recently been expressed in the form of paralyzing mass protests. With presidential elections set for 2012, it is widely acknowledged in Washington that the combination of the economic crisis and the disastrous “war on drugs” could eventually topple the Calderon administration.

In this context, the real essence of the “war on drugs” as a preemptive strike against a mass radicalization of working and poor Mexicans becomes clear.

Within the first year of the “war on drugs,” the national media worked in tandem with the executive branch to generate a virtual hysteria over drug-related killings. Calderon seized upon these incidents to push through a raft of reactionary legislation and executive decrees aimed at strengthening the executive and criminalizing any and all mass social movements opposed to growing economic inequality and political corruption.

This was complimented by a record increase in extraditions to the US, the expansion of the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) presence in Mexico, increased intelligence sharing and Calderon’s continued calls for more US support.

These calls were answered in short order via the Merida Initiative—proposed by George Bush and passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress as part of a bill to increase war spending in Iraq—which lavishes nearly $2 billion on the military and federal police agencies of Mexico and Central America over a period of three years.

Although the bill contains a few ritual statements affirming respect for the “rule of law,” its primary purpose is the extension of US military influence over Mexico and Central America under the guise of training programs, data collection and sharing, and the provision by the US of various forms of military technology and domestic spying equipment.

The real purpose of the Merida Initiative can be seen in its striking similarities to Plan Colombia, through which the US has heavily funded and deeply integrated itself into the Colombian military over the last decade, even as cocaine production in that country continually expands, hitting a nearly 30 percent increase by 2007, according to the Guardian.

In this context, The Joint Forces Command’s statement implying a direct military intervention represents a qualitative shift in line with US foreign policy in Mexico over the last two years.

The new circumstances not only raise the danger of political instability in Mexico, but also raise other major issues for US imperialism, including a change in the relative positions of the US and its rivals in Latin America. The Joint Forces Command study cites Cuba and Venezuela as “potential challenges to the status quo” in the region, noting their ability to promote anti-American coalitions with countries like Russia and China.

President Barack Obama met with Felipe Calderon on January 12, a week before his inauguration, to declare his continued support for the “war on drugs.” Although media coverage revealed very little about the meeting, Obama’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, recently summed up the foreign policy trajectory of the new administration in Foreign Affairs: Continuation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; maintenance of conventional US military dominance over potential adversaries, including China and Russia; and preparation for further occupations and “counter-insurgency operations,” with Mexico, it now appears, as a prime target.

Vice President Biden in Munich signals continuation of US aggression

Vice President Biden in Munich signals continuation of US aggression

By Ulrich Rippert

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At the centre of this weekend’s 45th Munich Security Conference was the speech given by the new US Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday. His speech had been keenly anticipated by the assembled audience of 300 leading politicians and state officials, including 13 heads of government and state and 50 ministers. They were eager to hear of the new content of US foreign policy under President Barack Obama and evinced a desire for the revival of transatlantic collaboration.

In his speech to the conference, Biden adopted a more conciliatory tone and spoke at length about the need for partnership and mutual trust. After eight years of unilateral action on the part of the Bush presidency, Biden knew this is what his audience wanted to hear.

In terms of content, however, there was little indication of any change from the core polices pursued by the Bush administration. Quite the opposite—his “charm offensive” (Süddeutsche Zeitung)—was bound up with an appeal for the Europeans to ally themselves even more closely with the US, while at the same time, taking on more responsibility for supporting Washington’s interventions abroad.

In the speech that he gave last summer in Berlin, the Democratic presidential candidate Obama had already called on European countries to throw aside their “pacifist misgivings” and send more troops to Afghanistan.

At the beginning of his speech in Munich, the US vice president announced a new era of collaboration between Washington and the world’s other states. “I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration...that’s determined to set a new tone not only in Washington but in America’s relations around the world”, he said. This new tone, he continued, is not a “luxury” but rather an “absolute necessity” in order to tackle joint challenges on the basis of a strong partnership.

In light of the huge problems confronting them, the world’s states have a responsibility to their citizens to “put aside the petty and political notions—to reject the zero sum mentalities and rigid ideologies and to listen and to learn from one another”.

While many European news outlets praised Biden’s words, a number of more thoughtful commentaries pointed out that in fact the vice president offered little in the way of change in the content of US foreign policy. In its on-line edition on Saturday, for example, the New York Times noted that the American vice president stressed that his government does not recognize the conception of a “Russian sphere of influence”. In other words, the government that declares it has the right to regard the entire planet as its sphere of influence and is prepared to pursue its interests through force of arms in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Caspian Basin, is not prepared to countenance other countries having any “sphere of influence” at all.

Biden emphasized: “We will not agree with Russia in everything. For example the US will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states”. On this issue, Biden declared his support for Georgia. At the same time, when questioned by a journalist as to whether his government was keen to see Georgia enter NATO, Biden answered that that was an issue for the Georgian government itself to decide, thereby making clear that the Obama administration may be less insistent on granting NATO membership for the country, while still reserving its right to carry out such a provocative action.

With regard to the issue of the controversial missile system that the US wants to install in Eastern Europe, Biden remained vague but insisted his government wanted to continue to develop the system when it was technically feasible and not too expensive.

On the issue of Iran, Biden maintained a hard-line course. Unlike Bush, Biden stated that the Obama administration was prepared to negotiate with Teheran; however he linked such negotiations with America’s well-known ultimatum. Those holding power in Iran have the following choice, he said: “Continue down the current course, and there will be continued pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism, and there will be meaningful incentives”. His comments were immediately condemned by members of the Iranian delegation at the conference, who could detect no change in the US stance.

In his remarks on the Middle East conflict, Biden made no reference to the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip and thereby continued the policy of tacit support for the mass murder expressed earlier by Obama himself. In light of the latest Israeli terror against the Palestinians, Biden’s call for a two-state solution in the region was utterly cynical. At the same time, Biden stressed that any reconstruction effort in Gaza should be subordinated to an effort to strengthen the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas.

Biden’s repeated calls for collaboration were greeted almost euphorically by conference participants, who preferred to ignore the actions already taken by the Obama government on the international stage.

Without consulting any of its allies the new US government has undertaken vigorous attacks against China, linked its economic stimulus programme with protectionist measures and begun the process of doubling its troops in Afghanistan in preparation for a new military intervention in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, Biden arrogantly demanded that “the allies” not only contribute their own ideas, but also rethink their policies...“including your readiness to use violence when all other measures fail”. A new concept for the war in Afghanistan demands an extensive strategy that draws together the civil and military capabilities of all partners to achieve solutions for which all bear responsibility. In order to prevent the border region of Pakistan from becoming a safe haven for extremists, Pakistan must be included in the strategic planning, Biden said.

At the conference, NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also demanded more involvement on the part of European powers in the alliance. The new US government expected not just good advice, but more equitable burden sharing. The transatlantic alliance was based on mutual collaboration and was not just a “two-track road”.

The general secretary referred in particular to the intervention in Afghanistan, which is a top priority for NATO. He was concerned that the US was planning to increase its involvement in Afghanistan, while “other countries have already ruled out doing more”. This was not good for the alliance, he said, and would inevitably lead to a reduction of Europe’s influence in Washington. In talks held last Friday, the new US special advisor in Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, had already appealed to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier for increased German involvement in Afghanistan.

Despite the diplomatic overtures employed by the new US vice president, this year’s Munich Security Conference took place under conditions of growing tensions developing in various regions around the world.

Just a few days before the conference, the government in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan announced plans to close a strategic US military base in the country. The US base situated close to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is of crucial importance for supplying the US-led occupation in Afghanistan. According to media reports, Russia had applied pressure for the closure of the base, promising Kyrgyzstan in return credits and investments totalling more than two billion dollars.

Biden’s comments that his government would never recognize and accept a “Russian sphere of influence” was a response to this development and contained a direct threat to Moscow. In light of the economic and financial crisis, together with a growing series of military setbacks in Afghanistan, the Obama government is under enormous pressure. However, weakened governments often respond with drastic and unexpected measures. In this respect, the current diplomatic offensive launched by Washington could soon be revealed as the cover for new and violent actions.

European governments are reacting to Washington’s weakened position with a mixture of undisguised relief and fear. Leading European politicians are stressing that US dominance in world politics has ended, and Europe must now play a greater role.

In this connection, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) published an article in the current edition of Spiegel headlined “On the future of the German deployment in Afghanistan”. In the article, Schröder stresses that with its deployment in Afghanistan as part of NATO, Germany has not only carried out its obligations, but has also won rights. Schröder declares that the intervention by the German army in Afghanistan is an “expression of the complete sovereignty of Germany with regard to foreign and security policy”. He points out that the security situation has clearly worsened in Afghanistan during the past three years and blames Washington’s war policy.

The problems in Afghanistan, according to Schröder, can only be resolved in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Iraq and the dispute over the Iranian nuclear programme. “None of the conflicts can be considered in isolation”, he writes. In order to arrive at a solution, a regional dialogue is necessary, which would include countries like Syria and Iran.

In other words, in return for increased participation of the German army in Afghanistan, Schröder is demanding an increased role for German imperialism in the Middle East and Iran. As chairman of the pipeline consortium that plans to supply huge amounts of energy from Russia to Europe, Schröder has long appealed for a new improved relationship with Russia. On all of these issues Schröder is warning the ruling elite that any concessions to the US regarding increased deployments in Afghanistan can only be struck on the basis of demanding a “new deal” for Europe—and Germany in particular—on a host of other pressing international issues.

Behind the mutual backslapping and diplomatic niceties in Munich, conflicts between the major powers are growing rapidly.

Obama’s economic stimulus paves way for multi-trillion-dollar handout to the banks

Obama’s economic “stimulus” paves way for multi-trillion-dollar handout to the banks

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In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Barack Obama endorsed the compromise stimulus plan worked out by a small group of Republican senators, right-wing Democratic Senator Ben Nelson and “independent Democrat” Joseph Lieberman, a fervent supporter of the war in Iraq who backed Republican presidential candidate John McCain against Obama in the November elections.

The deal strips from the House of Representatives’ version of the stimulus plan some $40 billion in aid to states and localities and $19.5 billion in federal aid for school construction, reduces proposed health care subsidies for the unemployed, slashes new aid for the Head Start pre-school program, lowers a proposed increase in food stamps and scales back Obama’s middle-class tax cut, while adding a $70 billion tax break for upper-income families.

Obama’s endorsement of the “compromise” plan is a continuation of the basic trajectory that has emerged in the first weeks of his presidency. His administration’s response to the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression starts from the premise that nothing can be done that infringes on the wealth and prerogatives of the American financial aristocracy and proceeds to capitulate at every point to the demands of the Republican opposition and the most right-wing sections of his own party.

The revised Senate bill, which is expected to pass on Tuesday with the support of three Republicans, removes from Obama’s “stimulus and recovery” package anything that remotely suggests large-scale relief or public works, under conditions of soaring layoffs and home foreclosures and the bankruptcy of state and local governments across the country. Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, appearing on the Fox television network’s Sunday news program, assured moderator Chris Wallace that any remaining relief measures for the unemployed or other increases in social spending would not become permanent programs, but would be rescinded once the crisis had abated.

In attacking Obama’s economic stimulus package from the right, Republicans have been able to exploit the fact that it is a hodgepodge of spending proposals and tax cuts—including tens of billions for big business—without any internal coherency or rational perspective for resolving the economic crisis. Obama’s purported plan to jump-start economic activity while simultaneously transforming the United States into a “21st century economy” does neither. It testifies to the absence of any serious or comprehensive response to the mounting economic and social crisis.

One of its major purposes is to provide political cover for what is considered within the ruling elite to be a far more important component of the administration’s economic program—a vast expansion of the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street. The Washington Post said as much in its lead editorial on Sunday, entitled “Saving the Banks: The most important steps of the administration’s recovery plan are still to come.”

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who, as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, played a key role in engineering the first stage of the $700 billion bailout of the banks, was expected to unveil the administration’s plan to use hundreds of billions in additional public funds to cover banking losses on Monday. However, Summers let it be known that Geithner would delay his announcement until Tuesday.

One reason for the delay is to soften public opposition to the bank bailout by waiting until the Senate has approved the stimulus plan, so that the massive transfer of wealth to the financial elite can be presented as part of a broader recovery plan to rescue “Main Street.” In the meantime, Obama will hold televised town hall meetings on Monday and Tuesday in cities devastated by layoffs and home foreclosures in order to engage in a bit of campaign-style demagogy.

From numerous reports in the press based on leaks from the Obama administration, the main outlines of the new bank bailout are clear. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve will commit hundreds of billions of dollars to make fresh cash injections into the banks, guarantee the banks’ worthless assets and subsidize private investors who agree to buy some of the “toxic” asset-backed securities weighing down the banks’ balance sheets, while insuring the investors against potential losses.

There will be no serious restrictions on executive pay or on how the banks use the government money, such as requirements that they use it to increase their lending to other businesses and consumers. Moreover, the government will devise the plan so as to avoid taking any significant equity stake in the banks in return for the windfalls they receive, thus reinforcing the private control over the financial system by the very executives and investors who brought the banking system to the point of collapse through speculation in the pursuit of super profits and personal enrichment. The plan will avoid the government having to directly purchase the banks’ worthless assets in order to evade the political problem of paying prices wildly out of line with the actual market value of the securities.

The net result will be to protect the investments of major shareholders and ultimately make them, the top executives and big speculators immeasurably richer at the end of the day.

There is to be no investigation or public accounting of the fraudulent and criminal practices that led to the financial meltdown, or the role of government officials in utilizing the crisis to plunder the public treasury in order to further enrich the financial elite. This is despite the report issued Friday by the congressional panel set up to oversee the first $700 billion bailout which revealed that Bush administration officials overpaid for banks’ “troubled assets” by some $78 billion.

According to the New York Times editorial on Sunday, the new bank bailout “will ultimately put hundreds of billions of tax dollars, if not trillions, on the line.” Meanwhile, the cuts in the Senate stimulus bill to already inadequate federal aid to the states and localities contained in the House version will result in hundreds of thousands of layoffs of teachers and public employees by state governments reeling from the collapse in tax revenues and facing bankruptcy. It means the closure of parks, libraries, hospitals and the decimation of public transportation and other services.

State governments are facing a collective budget shortfall of $47.4 billion this fiscal year and the gap will rise, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, to $350 billion by 2011. Already, the biggest state in the country, California, has held up welfare checks and is closing public offices two days every month as a result of rolling furloughs of state workers. The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that the only public hospital in the Las Vegas area has closed its outpatient oncology services center because of state Medicaid cuts, affecting hundreds of cancer patients. The Democratic governor of the state of Washington has proposed pay freezes and layoffs for teachers and state employees, a $350 million cut in funding for higher education, closures of 13 state parks and a 42 percent reduction in the state’s health insurance program for the working poor.

American society is being bankrupted as the resources of the country are placed at the disposal of the richest of the rich.

Obama paints a picture of economic catastrophe

Obama paints a picture of economic catastrophe

By Patrick Martin

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Addressing a national television audience in his first White House press conference, President Barack Obama, promoting his economic stimulus plan, used unprecedented language to characterize the deepening economic crisis. He described conditions of rapidly rising unemployment, growing demand at food banks, widespread foreclosures, the collapse of consumer spending and the failure of small businesses.

He declared that his administration "inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression," and warned that the lack of a federal government intervention "could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."

In response to the first question at the press conference, which suggested he was exaggerating the crisis, he observed, "This is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession. We are going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We've lost now 3.6 million jobs. But what's perhaps even more disturbing is that almost half of that job loss has taken place over the last three months, which means that the problems are accelerating instead of getting better."

Obama nowhere attempted to explain the cause of the greatest world economic disaster in three quarters of a century. When another press questioner suggested that excessive consumer spending was a cause, he responded that it was not the fault of consumers, but of "banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people's money, based on shaky assets."

He drew no conclusions, however, from this admission—which directly contradicts his own assertion, in his January 20 inaugural address, that the American people as a whole are responsible for the financial crisis. His position could be summed up as: Capitalism has failed. Long live capitalism!

Obama declared that, like the Republicans, he supports the primacy of the "private sector"—i.e., the domination of the American and world economy by profit-making corporations. But the government had to intervene to "jump-start" the profit system, he argued.

"At this particular moment," Obama said in his opening remarks, "with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money, which leads to even more layoffs."

The actions proposed by the White House do nothing to address the causes of the financial collapse and little to relieve the mass suffering that Obama admitted exists in the United States. The scale of the stimulus bill, $820 billion, is dwarfed by the magnitude of the economic slump. Even if one accepts Obama's claim that the stimulus plan will create or save 4 million jobs over two years, the US economy is losing jobs at the rate of 600,000 a month—or 14 million over two years.

Only hours before the press conference, the Senate took a key step towards passage of a version of Obama's stimulus plan, voting by 61 to 36 to end debate and block a Republican filibuster. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill provide a tax cut worth about $500 a year to most workers, extend unemployment and health care benefits for those laid off, and give subsidies to state governments.

The Senate bill, the result of a compromise brokered by a handful of Republicans and right-wing Democrats, provides $40 billion less in federal aid to the states than the House bill and slashes nearly $20 billion in money for school construction and repair, while allocating $70 million more in tax cuts, mainly to upper-income families. Neither version covers massive state budget deficits that will result in tens of thousands of layoffs and drastic cuts in essential services.

Only a tiny fraction of either bill—some $40 billion out of $820 billion—goes to direct job creation through public works programs. The rest amounts to an effort to prevent a complete collapse of consumer spending and outright state bankruptcy as the economic slump worsens.

Obama made no reference to criticism of the stimulus plan as too small, instead focusing attention entirely on the opposition of congressional Republicans to any increase in federal spending to alleviate the conditions of working people.

After referring to his visit earlier in the day to address a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana, an industrial town where unemployment has tripled in the past year, Obama said, "If there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don't know where their next paycheck is coming from."

But nothing in Obama's program acknowledges or addresses the systemic origins of the crisis. He made passing references to the "failed policies of the past" and "tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans," and criticized those in Congress who opposed any stimulus package at all. But he made no proposal for any change in the structure of the financial system, and no reference to the role of private wealth accumulation in producing the disaster.

He was silent on the enormous growth of social inequality—the chasm between the super-rich and the great mass of the working population, which is wider than it has ever been in America. This social gulf is both a symptom of the financial disaster and the principal obstacle to any effort to resolve it, since any serious program to address the economic emergency involves making inroads into the property interests of the billionaires.

There is no doubt that the sober, even somber, tone Obama adopted in opening the press conference, and the dire picture he painted of the depth of the economic problems, owed something to his trip to Elkhart earlier in the day. There several thousand people, largely working-class, attended a town hall meeting.

The questions posed to Obama from the floor expressed a bitter class hostility towards the Wall Street "fat cats" who were identified as both the cause of the crisis and the prime beneficiaries of the series of bailouts backed by both Bush and Obama.

As a political representative of big business, Obama is capable of addressing working people only as victims of the financial catastrophe. He makes no appeal to the working class to take action to defend their jobs, homes and living standards.

On the contrary, one of his major concerns is to warn the ruling elite that the uncontrolled growth of mass suffering will have explosive political consequences.

Obama administration defends torturers

Obama administration defends torturers

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All of the Obama administration's rhetoric about "change you can believe in," government transparency and democratic ideals went up in smoke Monday morning in a San Francisco federal courtroom.

A federal attorney representing President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, rose to announce that the new administration will be standing pat on the position taken by George Bush and his Justice Department in a case involving some of the most heinous crimes of the previous administration.

Like his predecessor, Obama is invoking the state secrets privilege to quash a case brought on behalf of individuals who were abducted by the CIA, held in secrecy and without charges and transported to third countries to be interrogated under torture.

The practice, known as "extraordinary rendition," has come to symbolize for people all over the world everything that was lawless, sadistic and reactionary about the Bush administration. Contained within this lawless act of the US government were all of the most nightmarish features of a police-state dictatorship.

People were torn from their homes and families by jackbooted men dressed in black and wearing masks to become "disappeared" persons, their very existence in US custody denied by Washington. Denied any protections afforded to either criminal suspects or prisoners of war, they were detained in many cases for years without charges while subjected to the most barbaric forms of torture.

The case in San Francisco involves five victims of this state crime. It was brought against not the CIA and the government, but rather one of their corporate accomplices, Jeppesen DataPlan, a Boeing subsidiary that organized—and profited from—the secret CIA rendition flights in which those abducted were flown in supposedly private aircraft, hooded, shackled and often drugged, to "black sites," foreign prisons and torture chambers around the world.

Though not a defendant in this civil case, the Bush Justice Department intervened, invoking the state secrets privilege and claiming that going forward in any way with the proceedings would present a threat to national security. A lower court concurred, and the hearing Monday was held before the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, where attorneys for the five abducted men sought the lawsuit's reinstatement. Obama's representative intervened, once again, to have it thrown out on the very same grounds.

Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney who argued the case for the plaintiffs, condemned the action. "We are shocked and deeply disappointed that the Justice Department has chosen to continue the Bush administration's practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture," he said. "This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course."

The claim that allowing the case to go forward would endanger national security is ludicrous on its face. The practice of extraordinary rendition has not only been exposed by human rights organizations and the media, but has been openly defended by US government officials. Rather, the government's aim in suppressing any legal challenge is to protect those responsible for war crimes and to prevent new evidence of official criminality from surfacing.

The hideous nature of these crimes is spelled out in the complaint filed by the lawyers for the five men. One of them was Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national who was a British resident for seven years before being abducted in Pakistan and then flown by the CIA to Morocco. There, according to the legal complaint: "He was routinely beaten, suffering broken bones and, on occasion, loss of consciousness due to the beatings. His clothes were cut off with a scalpel and the same scalpel was then used to make incisions on his body, including his penis. A hot stinging liquid was then poured into open wounds on his penis where he had been cut. He was frequently threatened with rape, electrocution, and death."

It continues: "He was placed in a damp, moldy room with open sewage for a month at a time. He believed his food to be drugged, but when he refused to eat he was forcibly hooked up to two different IVs. These IVs alternated pumping different substances into his body, the combination of which forced him to undergo painful withdrawal symptoms."

After a year and a half of this torture, he was transferred to the so-called "Dark Prison" run by the CIA at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where his "captors repeatedly hit his head against the wall until he began to bleed." He was held in a cold cell measuring six foot square, chained to the floor and kept in pitch darkness 23 hours a day. He was also "hung from a pole" and subjected to loud noises piped into the cell. Fed raw rice, beans and bread, over the course of four months of this detention he lost between 40 and 60 pounds.

Now at Guantanamo, the US government is preparing to release Mohamed, having produced not a shred of evidence linking him to any terrorist activity.

Then there is the case of Ahmed Agiza, 45, an Egyptian pharmacist who was seized by the CIA in Sweden, where he had sought political asylum. The CIA flew him back to Egypt where, the document states, he "was severely and repeatedly beaten and routinely subjected to electric shock treatment. Mr. Agiza was stripped naked and strapped to a wet mattress. Electrodes were then applied to his ear lobes, nipples, and genitals, so that an extremely strong electric current could be introduced causing his body to rise and fall. A doctor was present throughout to ensure he did not die from torture." He was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison by an Egyptian military tribunal for belonging to a proscribed political organization.

Similar appalling details are provided in the court document [PDF] regarding the treatment of the other plaintiffs in the case.

In seeking to suppress this case, the Obama administration has taken full ownership of these savage crimes.

The Bush administration's use of the state secrets privilege, which it invoked dozens of times over the course of its eight-year tenure, was a hallmark of its increasing assumption of extraordinary and at times near-dictatorial powers. The use of this same heavy-handed legal tactic by the Obama administration has unmistakable and far-reaching implications.

While Washington is attempting to use the departure of Bush and the ascension of Obama to refurbish the abysmal image of US government both at home and abroad, the action taken in the San Francisco federal court is only one of a number of recent developments making it clear that the essential contours of US imperialist policy and both the criminal and police-state measures that it has engendered will not be transformed by the change in personnel in the White House.

Highly revealing in this regard was the Senate testimony last Friday by Obama's nominee for CIA director, Leon Panetta.

Asked specifically about extraordinary rendition, Panetta claimed that the administration had forbid by executive order "that kind of extraordinary rendition where we send someone for the purpose of torture or for actions by another country that violate our human values."

He added, however, that the CIA could still abduct suspects and send them to third countries for interrogation, provided it received assurances that they would be treated humanely. Of course, the Bush administration routinely claimed that it had just such assurances from countries like Egypt and Morocco.

Under sharp questioning from Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, Panetta explicitly repudiated his earlier assertion that detainees had been tortured. "On that particular quote, that people were transferred for the purposes of torture, that was not the policy of the United States," he declared. "To that extent, yes, I would retract that statement."

What is involved here is not merely the formal denial of past crimes that are well known to people all over the world, but a signal that the CIA will continue to carry out such crimes with impunity.

Then there is the report, published in the Washington Post Saturday, that the Obama administration is revamping the National Security Council (NSC), endowing it with sweeping new powers that suggest the formation of something akin to a fourth branch of government.

Heading this agency is national security adviser James L. Jones, a retired Marine general described by the Post as a "proponent of a ‘pro-active military' in noncombat regions," who "has advocated military collaboration with the oil and gas industry."

Directing much of the reconfiguring of the NSC, according to the Post, is John O. Brennan, a former senior CIA official who is both Obama's adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security and Jones's deputy. Obama had reportedly wanted to place him at the head of the CIA, but was forced to withdraw his name for consideration after it became known that Brennan was a vocal advocate of the extraordinary rendition program and a defender of the CIA's "enhanced coercive interrogation techniques," i.e., torture.

Less than three weeks after the inauguration, it is becoming ever more apparent that the new administration has been brought into office to defend the same social and class interests as the previous one, is utilizing similar methods and relying on the same personnel within the national security apparatus responsible for the criminal activities of the past eight years.

Nissan to slash 20,000 jobs and sees annual loss

Nissan to slash 20,000 jobs and sees annual loss


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Nissan announced 20,000 job cuts Monday, the deepest reduction among Japan's automakers in battling the global downturn, as it forecast its first annual loss in nine years.

Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said the latest problems were industrywide and due to the global economic slump and the appreciating yen. They didn't mean Nissan Motor Co. was reverting to its money-losing status that required a bailout from alliance partner Renault SA in 1999, he said.

The last time Japan's third-largest automaker racked up an annual net loss was for the fiscal year that ended March 2000. Then, a bloated Nissan had lost money in seven of the previous eight years.

"In 1999, we were alone. In 2009, everybody is suffering," Ghosn, also chief executive at Renault, said at Nissan's Tokyo headquarters.

Nissan now expects a 265 billion yen ($2.9 billion) net loss for the fiscal year through March — joining a raft of other Japanese corporate giants, including Toyota, Toshiba and Sony, in slashing jobs and projecting annual losses.

As a key step in weathering the downturn, Ghosn said Nissan will cut 20,000 jobs worldwide, or 8.5 percent of its 235,000-strong global work force, by March 2010.

Some 12,000 of the job cuts will be in Japan, including group companies, and the rest will be overseas. The company did not give a further regional breakdown.

The maker of the Z sports car and the March compact sank to a loss of 83.2 billion yen for the October-December period from a 132.2 billion yen profit a year earlier. Quarterly sales plunged 34.4 percent to 1.817 trillion yen.

Mamoru Katou, analyst with Tokai Tokyo Research, remained pessimistic about Nissan's recovery prospects.

Toyota and Honda, which both have gas-electric hybrids going on sale this year, are better positioned to boost sales when the recovery kicks in, he said. Nissan does not have a comparable hybrid model.

Nissan's job cuts in Japan — more aggressive than its domestic rivals — show its strategy to take production overseas and take advantage of the soaring yen but that would make the Nissan brand less popular in its home market, Katou said.

"The job cuts will hurt Japanese parts-makers, too, and in the long run diminish the Nissan brand value in Japan," he said.

No. 1 automaker Toyota Motor Corp., which is projecting a 350 billion yen ($3.85 billion) net loss for the fiscal year through March, its first such loss since 1950, is reducing contract workers in Japan from 8,800 in June last year to 3,000 in March.

Honda Motor Co., Japan's No. 2 automaker, is faring relatively better and is expecting to stay in the black, with a 80 billion yen ($879 million) profit. But it will cut the number of temporary workers at its Japan plants from 3,100 to zero by the end of April.

Nissan has already reduced its temporary plant workers in Japan by about 2,000 and slashed its British work force by 1,200 at its plant in Sunderland, northern England, where it had employed about 5,000 people. It has offered early retirement to 1,200 workers in the U.S., but that number will likely increase, according to Nissan.

Among other measures to cut costs, Nissan's directors will forgo bonus pay for the year ending March. Their salaries, and the salaries of corporate officers, will be reduced by 10 percent. Salaries of managers will be reduced by 5 percent.

Shift elimination, work stoppages and shorter working hours will help reduce global production by 20 percent, or 787,000 vehicles, from the initial plan by the end of this fiscal year, the automaker said.

Inventory is being reduced by 20 percent to 480,000 vehicles from 630,000 in March 2008.

Nissan sold 731,000 vehicles worldwide in the quarter ending Dec. 31, down 18.6 percent from the same period a year earlier. Nissan's vehicle sales suffered especially in the U.S., where they dropped 29.7 percent in January.

Nissan remains committed to developing electric vehicles and other zero-emission technology, Ghosn said.

"We don't think this crisis is going to last forever," he said.

Nissan shares slid 5.8 percent to 261 yen. Earnings were announced after trading ended in Tokyo.

Who Gets What: Billions to Colleges and Students

WHO GETS WHAT: Billions to colleges and students


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The stimulus plan emerging in Washington could offer an unprecedented, multibillion-dollar boost in financial help for college students trying to pursue a degree while they ride out the recession.

It could also hand out billions to the states to kick-start idled campus construction projects and help prevent tuition increases at a time when families can least afford them.

But cuts of $40 billion for state and local governments in the Senate version were a big disappointment for college leaders. House-Senate negotiations will determine whether education aid to the states is relatively modest or massive — and how much gets directed to high-need institutions for building projects, versus elite universities that would benefit if the final package spends more of the money on scientific research.

Students are big winners. Both the House and Senate bills call for the largest-ever funding increase for Pell Grants, the government's chief college aid program for low-income students.

It will take much of the proposed $15.6 billion increase in the House version (slightly less in the Senate) just to erase the existing funding shortfall and meet the surging demand as the economy sours and more students enroll.

But the package would also increase next year's maximum award by up to $500, to $5,350, starting July 1. That's the biggest increase in history and would cover three-quarters of the cost of the average public four-year college.

Most Pell recipients come from families earning less than $40,000. And supporters note the new Pell dollars would be spent almost immediately — students can't save them — while also paying off down the road.

"Long-term, if we want a better economy, we need more people going to college," Education Arne Duncan told The Associated Press last week.

College leaders meeting in Washington this week for the American Council on Education's annual meeting will be grateful for the student aid boost. But they'll be closely watching how Congress bridges the huge gaps between how much the House and Senate versions propose spending to bail out state budgets and prevent drastic education cuts.

The House bills calls for $79 billion to prevent cuts to local school districts and public higher education. But it's not yet clear how the money might be divided between K-12 and higher education, and a portion could go to things besides education. The Senate version calls for $39 billion.

Meanwhile, colleges are hoping Congress will agree restarting idled building projects is an efficient short- and long-term investment. As they lose revenues from state support, endowments and tuition, hundreds of projects are on hold nationwide, from a library extension at Fresno State to new dorms at Washington University in St. Louis and a biology lab at Yale.

The California State University system alone has halted 130 projects, which it values at $850 million and says account for 13,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the system may have to cut 10,000 enrollment slots.

The House bill has $6 billion for such projects, while the Senate has none.

"We're ready to go, there's great jobs involved, and we're educating kids who wouldn't have other opportunities if we weren't there," Chuck Middleton, president of Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, said Sunday. His university has a $135 million new building with classrooms, labs, dorms and offices on hold after financing dried up. Construction could be under way in six months, he says, providing 600 jobs for two years while helping Roosevelt's diverse student body.

Also helping students, the House and Senate both call for expanding the Hope tuition tax credit from $1,800 to $2,500 and making it partly refundable. Now, almost half of families with children pay no income tax, so the current tuition tax-credit system doesn't help them (the full benefit kicks in for families earning at least $43,000).

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the change could help 3.8 million students.

If the infrastructure spending survives, it would likely prioritize colleges with high minority enrollments, schools rebuilding from disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and energy-saving projects. It may also take steps to make sure community colleges get their fair share, and private colleges — such as Roosevelt — are hoping the final version will allocate some to their sector, too.

The money would be for academic facilities, and wouldn't go — directly at least — to things like gyms, food courts or chapels.

The House version calls for $1.5 billion for biomedical research facilities, while a Senate amendment set aside more than $6 billion in extra research money for the National Institutes of Health, among boosts to other research agencies. Those investments have long-term benefits, but it would take time to distribute them, and research universities would benefit most.

One other benefit notable for families: The Senate bill would also allow families to spend money from 529 college savings plans on computers.

CNN's Lou Dobbs Peddles Lies and Anti-Union Propaganda

CNN's Lou Dobbs Peddles Lies and Anti-Union Propaganda

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CNN host Lou Dobbs falsely suggested that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would "end a secret ballot" on his February 4 show.

At the conclusion of a report by CNN correspondent Bill Tucker about the Service Employees International Union's mobilization in support of the legislation, Dobbs said, "The American people voted for lots of things, but I don't know a lot of people voted to end a secret ballot."

Dobbs' claim that EFCA would eliminate the "secret ballot" in union authorization elections, which has been a centerpiece in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-funded anti-union PR campaign (see Nation, 1/26/09), is completely false. As the text of the act (H.R. 800, 3/2/07) reveals, EFCA contains no language about eliminating the "secret ballot" enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act under Section 9 e.

Under EFCA, workers would still have the right to vote in a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) "secret ballot" election if 30 percent of the workforce signs cards, just as they do now. EFCA would change the process of union formation by giving workers seeking to join a union an additional option of winning union representation after a majority of the workforce signs cards, through a new provision to the act (section 9 c 6).

As American Rights at Work points out, this method of union sign-up, known as "majority sign-up" or "card check," is already recognized under current labor law, but only when the employer approves it. EFCA would represent a change in such union drives by removing the ability of employers to withhold recognition and to insist on an NLRB election.

In the CNN report, SEIU president Andy Stern explained this point clearly: "This is the worker's choice. They can have a secret ballot or legally affirm by a majority of them signing cards." Either Dobbs was not listening to his own broadcast, or he thinks labor leaders like Stern aren't telling the truth. Either way, we know whose side he's on--he referred to the pending legislation as the "so-called Employee Free Choice Act," and deemed labor's lobbying on the bill a "bold threat."

ACTION: Ask Lou Dobbs to stop repeating the business lobby's false charge that EFCA would eliminate secret ballot elections.


Lou Dobbs




Please share your letters to Dobbs by posting them in the comments section of the FAIR Blog.

For more information on the media's role in misrepresenting EFCA, see Janine Jackson's article in the February issue of FAIR's magazine Extra!, "For Media, Card-Check Promise is One to Break."

Daschle Is Just the Beginning: Get Ready for a Torrent Outrage

Slumdogs Unite!

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SOMEDAY historians may look back at Tom Daschle’s flameout as a minor one-car (and chauffeur) accident. But that will depend on whether or not it’s followed by a multi-vehicle pileup that still could come. Even as President Obama refreshingly took responsibility for having “screwed up,” it’s not clear that he fully understands the huge forces that hit his young administration last week.

The tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than Daschle’s overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain’s trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.’s bonus. It’s even bigger than the Obama phenomenon itself. It could maim the president’s best-laid plans and what remains of our economy if he doesn’t get in front of the mounting public anger.

Like nearly everyone else in Washington, Obama was blindsided by the savagery and speed of Daschle’s demise. Conventional wisdom had him surviving the storm. Such is the city’s culture that not a single Republican or Democratic senator called for his withdrawal until the morning of his exit. Membership in the exclusive Senate club, after all, has its privileges. Among Daschle’s more vocal defenders was Bob Dole, who had recruited him to Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm where Dole has served as “special counsel” when not otherwise cashing in on his own Senate years by serving as a pitchman for PepsiViagra. and

In New York, editorial pages on both ends of the political spectrum, The Wall Street Journal and The Times, called for Daschle to step down. But not The Washington Post. In a frank expression of the capital’s isolation from the country, it thought Daschle could still soldier on even though “ordinary Americans who pay their taxes may well wonder why Mr. Obama can’t find cabinet secretaries who do the same.”

As Jon Stewart might say, oh those pesky ordinary Americans!

In reality, Daschle’s tax shortfall, an apparently honest mistake, was only a red flag for the larger syndrome that much of Washington still doesn’t get. It was the source, not the amount, of his unreported income that did him in. The car and driver advertised his post-Senate immersion in the greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism that both helped create our economic meltdown (on Wall Street) and failed to police it (in Washington). Daschle might well have been the best choice to lead health-care reform. But his honorable public record was instantly vaporized by tales of his cozy, lucrative relationships with the very companies he’d have to adjudicate as health czar.

Few articulate this ethical morass better than Obama, who has repeatedly vowed to “close the revolving door” between business and government and end our “two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks.” But his tough new restrictions on lobbyists (already compromised by inexplicable exceptions) and porous plan for salary caps on bailed-out bankers are only a down payment on this promise, even if they are strictly enforced.

The new president who vowed to change Washington’s culture will have to fight much harder to keep from being co-opted by it instead. There are simply too many major players in the Obama team who are either alumni of the financial bubble’s insiders’ club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe.

This includes Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary. Washington hands repeatedly observe how “lucky” Geithner was to be the first cabinet nominee with an I.R.S. problem, not the second, and therefore get confirmed by Congress while the getting was good. Whether or not this is “lucky” for him, it is hardly lucky for Obama. Geithner should have left ahead of Daschle.

Now more than ever, the president must inspire confidence and stave off panic. As Friday’s new unemployment figures showed, the economy kept plummeting while Congress postured. Though Obama is a genius at building public support, he is not Jesus and he can’t do it all alone. On Monday, it’s Geithner who will unveil the thorniest piece of the economic recovery plan to date — phase two of a bank rescue. The public face of this inevitably controversial package is now best known as the guy who escaped the tax reckoning that brought Daschle down.

Even before the revelation of his tax delinquency, the new Treasury secretary was a dubious choice to make this pitch. Geithner was present at the creation of the first, ineffectual and opaque bank bailout — TARP, today the most radioactive acronym in American politics. Now the double standard that allowed him to wriggle out of his tax mess is a metaphor for the double standard of the policy he must sell: Most “ordinary Americans” still don’t understand why banks got billions while nothing was done (and still isn’t being done) to bail out those who lost their homes, jobs and retirement savings.

As with Daschle, the political problems caused by Geithner’s tax infraction are secondary to the larger questions raised by his past interaction with the corporations now under his purview. To his credit, Geithner, like Obama, has devoted his career to public service, not buckraking. But he still has not satisfactorily explained why, as president of the New York Fed, he failed in his oversight of the teetering Wall Street institutions. Nor has he told us why, in his first major move in his new job, he secured a waiver from Obama to hire a Goldman Sachs lobbyist as his chief of staff. Nor, in his confirmation hearings, did he prove any more credible than the Bush Treasury secretary, the Goldman Sachs alumnus Hank Paulson, in explaining why Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail while A.I.G. and Citigroup were spared.

Citigroup had one highly visible asset that Lehman did not: Robert Rubin, the former Clinton Treasury secretary who sat passively (though lucratively) in its executive suite as Citi gorged on reckless risk. Geithner, as a Rubin protégé from the Clinton years, might have recused himself from rescuing Citi, which so far has devoured $45 billion in bailout money.

Key players in the Obama economic team beyond Geithner are also tied to Rubin or Citigroup or both, from Larry Summers, the administration’s top economic adviser, to Gary Gensler, the newly named nominee to run the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and a Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Back then, Summers and Gensler joined hands with Phil Gramm to ward off regulation of the derivative markets that have since brought the banking system to ruin. We must take it on faith that they have subsequently had judgment transplants.

Obama’s brilliant appointees, we keep being told, are irreplaceable. But as de Gaulle said, “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” You have to wonder if this team is really a meritocracy or merely a stacked deck. Not only did Rubin himself serve on the Obama economic transition team, but two of the transition’s headhunters were Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff at Treasury and later a Citigroup executive, and James S. Rubin, an investor who is Robert Rubin’s son.

A welcome outlier to this club is Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman chosen to direct Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. But Bloomberg reported last week that Summers is already freezing Volcker out of many of his deliberations on economic policy. This sounds like the arrogant Summers who was fired as president of Harvard, not the chastened new Summers advertised at the time of his appointment. A team of rivals is not his thing.

Americans have had enough of such arrogance, whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican. Voters turned on Sarah Palin not just because of her manifest unfitness for office but because her claims of being a regular hockey mom were contradicted by her Evita shopping sprees. John McCain’s sanctification of Joe the Plumber (himself a tax delinquent) never could be squared with his inability to remember how many houses he owned. A graphic act of entitlement also stripped naked that faux populist John Edwards.

The public’s revulsion isn’t mindless class hatred. As Obama said on Wednesday of his fellow citizens: “We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success.” But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression.

This is why “Slumdog Millionaire,” which pits a hard-working young man in Mumbai against a corrupt nexus of money and privilege, has become America’s movie of the year. As Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary, wrote after Daschle’s fall, Americans “resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections.”

The neo-Hoover Republicans in Congress, who think government can put Americans back to work with corporate tax cuts but without any “spending,” are tone deaf to this rage. Obama is not. It’s a good thing he’s getting out of Washington this week to barnstorm the country about the crisis at hand. Once back home, he’s got to make certain that the insiders in his own White House know who’s the boss.

The GOP's Filibuster Hypocrisy

The GOP's Filibuster Hypocrisy

By Robert Parry

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Though seemingly forgotten by most TV talking heads, it was only three years ago, when the Republicans had control of both the White House and Congress – and “filibuster” was a dirty word.

It was usually coupled with “obstructionist” amid demands that any of George W. Bush’s proposals deserved “an up-or-down vote.”

Yet now, with the Democrats holding the White House and Congress, the Republicans and the Washington press corps have come to view the filibuster fondly, as a valued American tradition, a time-honored part of a healthy legislative process.

Today, it’s seen as a good thing that Democrats must muster 60 votes in the Senate to pass almost anything.

When the TV pundits talk about Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan squeaking through the Senate, they're actually referring to a vote that might fall in the range of 60 or more yes votes to perhaps 38 no’s, a three-touchdown “squeaker.”

The only thing close about the vote is whether the package can overcome a Republican filibuster and get 60 votes for “cloture.” To reach this super-majority, Democrats have been forced to accept a higher percentage of tax cuts, even if leading economists consider tax cuts one of the least effective ways of stimulating the moribund economy.

Yet, this anti-democratic fact about the GOP strategy – that it seeks to frustrate the will of the American majority, which rejected the Republicans and their policies in the last two U.S. elections – is rarely mentioned in the news.

Nor is the fact that Republicans railed against even a hint of a filibuster when the Democrats were in the minority just a few years ago.

Back then, when the Republicans controlled everything, the big story was how a threatened Democratic filibuster against, say, one of Bush’s right-wing judicial nominations would be met by the Republican “nuclear option” – using a majority-vote on a rule change to eliminate the filibuster permanently.

For instance, in 2006, when Bush wanted to put Samuel Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court, the move amounted to a direct threat to the Republic. Alito was a staunch believer in the imperial presidency, a promoter of a “unitary executive” who would wield unlimited powers at a time of war – and the “war on terror” promised to be an endless war.

If confirmed, Alito would join three other justices – John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – who shared his extreme views, and possibly another, Anthony Kennedy, who was considered only slightly more moderate.

In effect, the Alito nomination raised the specter of five right-wing justices effectively gutting the U.S. Constitution and its checks and balances in favor of Bush’s personal rule.

The Republic in the Balance

With the future of the American Republic in the balance and Bush short of 60 votes in favor of Alito, a filibuster could have stopped this radical nomination in its tracks and could have forced Bush to select a less extreme nominee.

Many in the Democratic “base” urged Senate Democrats to use the filibuster at this critical moment – a time when Bush was viewing himself as a new-age monarch and his political aides were fantasizing about a “permanent Republican majority,” transforming the United States into a virtual one-party state with the Democrats kept around as a cosmetic appendage.

As this drama played out, the Washington news media weighed in heavily against a Democratic filibuster, essentially repeating Republican talking points about the need to give the President’s nominee an up-or-down vote and bemoaning the anti-democratic nature of the filibuster.

Republican leaders thundered that any use of the filibuster against Alito or other Bush judicial nominees would force them to go “nuclear” by outlawing filibusters forever. Then, the Republicans could ram through whomever – or whatever – they wanted.

Rather than call the Republicans’ bluff, “moderate” Democratic senators joined a bipartisan group called the “Gang of 14,” which agreed to forego filibusters except in “extraordinary circumstances.” And despite the alarm of many Americans about Bush’s moves to eradicate the Republic, this “gang” did not believe Alito’s confirmation reached the “extraordinary” standard.

So, when a few Democratic senators led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts tried to mount a filibuster, the Senate Democratic leadership refused to put up a fight, even as their former standard bearer was mocked by Republicans as a “Swiss Miss” for first urging the filibuster while he was attending an economic conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan piled on Kerry at a White House press briefing. “I think even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps,” McClellan laughed.

In support of his filibuster, Kerry could line up only 25 votes, while the Republicans amassed 72 votes for cloture – a dozen more than the 60 needed to shut off debate. Those votes included 19 Democrats.

On the final confirmation vote, however, Alito was approved by a much smaller margin, 58-42, meaning that he could have been kept off the Supreme Court if all those who considered him a poor choice had backed the filibuster.

[As for the fate of the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy turned out to be less of an extremist than some Republicans had hoped. He joined with more moderate justices in key 5-to-4 opinions that rebuffed President Bush’s assertions of unlimited powers.]

Reversing Majorities

Despite the timidity of Senate Democrats in the Alito battle, an energized Democratic “base” – joined by Republican constitutionalists – fought on against the “permanent-Republican-majority” dreams of Bush, Karl Rove and the neoconservatives. In November 2006, the Republicans were repudiated at the polls.

Suddenly in the congressional minority, the Republicans did a flip-flop on the filibuster, discovering the high principles behind the tactic. The GOP used the filibuster routinely in 2007 and 2008 to block Democratic initiatives, especially any challenges to Bush’s expansive claims of executive authority.

Typical of the modern Washington press corps, its leading voices changed, too, joining the Republican chorus hailing the filibuster as an honored tradition of democracy and finding value in the need for the Democrats to muster 60 Senate votes to pass any significant bill.

Today, the press corps continues in that pattern, forgetting the GOP’s earlier contempt for the filibuster and treating its use by the Republican minority against the stimulus bill as normal.

There are rarely any comments about obstructionism, nor are the Republicans compared to the Southern segregationists who famously used the filibuster to resist civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s.

Given this pass by the press, Republicans are making the filibuster their chief weapon in pressuring Obama and congressional Democratic to accept more of a Republican-style stimulus bill with less spending and more tax cuts, regardless of whether that represents the best hope for the U.S. economy.

But the stimulus battle is likely to be only the first taste of the GOP strategy to hobble the Obama presidency. The Republicans can be expected to use the filibuster again and again to prevent many of the social and economic changes that the American voters endorsed in November 2008, policies like national health insurance and spending on long-neglected domestic needs.

In this obstructionism, the Republicans appear to have a powerful ally in the Washington press corps that – with few exceptions – treats the GOP’s promiscuous use of filibusters as some responsible application of a time-honored tradition. The press also forgets to remind the U.S. public that just a few years ago, the Republicans hated filibusters.