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John Passant

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May 2011



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

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Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
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Reining in the revolution

Despite the platitudes and cheerleading, as the editorial in Socialist Worker argues, Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East made it clear that the U.S. is no friend of the Arab revolution.

BOMBS and bribes, promises and threats. That’s Barack Obama’s formula for derailing the revolutions in the Arab world and keeping the region under U.S. domination.

Of course, the president didn’t put it that way in his May 19 speech at the State Department, billed as a major address on U.S. policy in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and ongoing revolt throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Instead, Obama sought to portray the U.S. as the champion of people power. He acknowledged that “we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force–no matter how well-intentioned it may be.” As if George W. Bush was “well-intentioned” in undertaking an imperial conquest that took an estimated 1 million Iraqi lives and left thousands of U.S. soldiers dead and many more maimed.

Passing quickly over Iraq, Obama postured as the champion of Palestinian self-determination, calling for a Palestinian state based on Egypt’s 1967 borders. And he portrayed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as in keeping with U.S. traditions:

For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union–organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa -– words which tell us that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.

“Tyrants will fall?” The downfall of Middle Eastern dictators came as no thanks to the U.S. government, which propped up Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. “Inalienable rights?” Mubarak ruled through a never-ending state of emergency, rigged elections, a ban on protests, systematic torture and the outlawing of independent trade unions–all bankrolled by more than $1 billion a year in U.S. government aid.

The U.S. policy was similar in Tunisia, where the corrupt and brutal regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the recipient of a steady flow of funds from Washington–and Paris–as a reliable ally in the “war on terror.” The U.S. only pulled the plug on Mubarak and Ben Ali when White House strategists, the CIA and the Pentagon concluded that the revolutionary upsurge would sweep away their clients no matter what.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHAT ABOUT Libya? Didn’t the U.S. finally put itself on the right side of the revolution, answering the call of rebels fearful of a massacre at the hands of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces? “Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed,” Obama said in his speech.

In reality, the U.S., which counted Qaddafi as an ally in the “war on terror” and an important oil supplier, acted only when it appear that the situation would spiral out of control, taking Libyan oil offline and sending a wave of refugees headed for European shores.

Thus, what was presented as limited NATO air strikes to protect civilians in the city of Benghazi was soon revealed to be an open-ended intervention, complete with CIA operatives on the ground, support for a rebel government increasingly shaped by Western interests, and an explicit call by the U.S. and its allies for Qaddafi’s ouster.

But that doesn’t make the U.S. the midwife of the Libyan revolution. On the contrary, the U.S. call for regime change is an invitation for the Libyan ruling elite to dump Qaddafi and come to terms with the West, or face the effective partition of the country into a U.S. client state in the eastern region around Benghazi, while NATO air power continues to pound away at the regime’s strongholds around the capital of Tripoli.

And while the U.S. is openly attempting to bring down Qaddafi, Washington is giving the repressive monarchy in Bahrain, well, the royal treatment.

A satellite state of Saudi Arabia and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has long oppressed the majority Shiite Muslim population while a Sunni elite has grown fantastically wealthy. But when the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions inspired a nonviolent pro-democracy movement to take to the streets, the Bahrain security forces, backed by the Saudi military, cleared the streets with tanks and live ammunition.

But that was only the beginning of the crackdown. In recent weeks, the Bahraini authorities have carried out mass arrests, engaged in systematic torture, fired Shiites from their jobs en masse, and orchestrated anti-Shia pogroms that have left mosques and entire neighborhoods in ruin. All of this is taking place literally on the doorstep of the U.S. military.

Obama couldn’t ignore this repression entirely in the age of the Internet and al Jazeera. “If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change,” the president said, naming both Yemen and Bahrain.

But there was no saber-rattling or threats of sanctions targeting Bahrain. Just a call–a polite suggestion, really–that the Bahrain government “must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.”

As for Yemen, the U.S. has tried to prop up the three-decade rule of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh despite weeks of mass protests that have endured a violent crackdown. The U.S. appears to be working through the Gulf emirates to try to ease Saleh out of office gradually, so that Yemen doesn’t become the latest revolutionary victory and give new impetus to the regional uprising.

But having provided the Saleh regime with $300 million per year, including $170 million in military assistance, Washington wants to keep the Yemeni security state intact in a post-Saleh government. Hence Obama’s mild verbal reprimand in his speech: “President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”

In fact, the U.S. appears unfazed by the fact that a armed mob of Saleh supporters trapped the U.S. Ambassador and other allied diplomats in the United Arab Emirates’ embassy. But the longer the U.S. props up Saleh, the more polarized the situation in Yemen becomes, thanks to a mass movement of the poor that threatens all the strongmen that the U.S. would like to see take over in Yemen.

Even in Syria, long reviled in Washington as a “sponsor of terror,” the U.S., along with Israel, is tacitly backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad against a mass pro-democracy movement.

Fearful that a democratic Syrian government would further inspire anti-U.S. and anti-Israel struggles in the region, the Obama administration was conspicuously quiet when Syrian armed forces shot down unarmed demonstrators, laid siege to entire towns with artillery, and arrested and tortured protesters by the thousands.

It was only after the pro-democracy movement was already reeling from repression that the U.S. sharpened its rhetoric against Syria. But rather than getting a cruise missile from a NATO plane, Assad got a warning from Obama, some limited sanctions and a call to “start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

ESSENTIALLY, OBAMA is trying to rebrand the U.S. from the image of arrogant military overlords to one of cheerleaders for the democratic revolutions. “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity,” he said.

But even in this public relations exercise, parts of the real U.S. policy are visible, like the tips of icebergs. According to Obama’s speech, a future Palestinian state should be based on “land swaps” with Israel–which would mean that Israeli settlers would get the best land and water in the West Bank, while Palestinians remain locked outside their homeland.

Obama made no mention of Palestinians’ right of return–so much for those “inalienable rights.” And when Obama sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss White House proposals, the president sat by as Netanyahu told the world’s media that he rejected even Obama’s pro-Israeli “compromise.”

Above all, Obama made it clear that the U.S. is still the boss of the region and a reliable ally for loyal repressive regimes, like the Saudi royal family. “As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners,” Obama said.

The speech also contained prominent mention of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden, implying that the U.S. “war on terror” was in the interest of the revolutionary democratic movements in the Arab and Muslim world. In fact, the U.S. wants to continue to use the “war on terror” as a pretext to carry out military intervention anywhere in the world.

That’s why the White House has kept quiet as House Republicans add language to a defense authorization bill that, as former Republican Rep. Bob Barr wrote, gives a blank check for U.S. military intervention against “terrorist targets”:

What this latest language does is give the Obama administration and its successors preemptive permission to use military force against an alleged terrorist group, or even a country harboring them, based on some arbitrary, alleged association with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. While the Obama administration has not asked for these expanded powers, neither is it offering firm opposition.

So if a few more wedding parties in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are bombed by U.S. drones as a result of attacks on “high-value targets,” so be it.

Finally, Obama’s offer of economic aid for Egypt and Tunisia is, in fact, an effort to ensnare those economies in the corporate-friendly, market-driven neoliberal policies tailored to the needs of Western corporations. The model for this initiative, Obama said, are the programs used in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall– efforts that turned the countries of that region into low-wage economies dominated by the West.

Now Obama wants to repeat that process in the Middle East, claiming to “open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.”

The U.S. attempt to limit a revolutionary upsurge with carrots as well as sticks is nothing new. In the aftermath of the First World War, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who took the U.S. into the trench-warfare slaughter to “make the world safe for democracy,” was out to open up new areas of the world to U.S. influence.

The words of warning then by the U.S. revolutionary journalist and Communist Party founder John Reed are once again timely for a new generation of revolutionaries in the Middle East.

Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.



Comment from Ross
Time May 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

Beijing have warned the USA not to threaten Pakistan.They will take this as a threat to the sovereignity of China.

So the USA and its’ NATO allies are in bit of a bind.In a conventional war they will not match the might of China,Iran,Pakistan and Russia.Their troops are demoralised by 10 yrs of fake wars ,depleted uranium induced sickness and poor treatment of returned soldiers.Their economy is on its’ belly and with the awareness generated by the internet,they are in no shape to have the really big one.

Comment from Terrance
Time May 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Not much one can dismiss here John except that President Obama is being asked to rectify the wrongs committed by the British and French.

I’m not a staunch defender of America or its foreign policy, but I admire and respect Obama and regard him (and Clinton) as the finest post-WW2 Presidents.

Libya and Syria’s inherent instability is a product of French colonialism and subjugation of the citizenry. The US can shoulder the sins of Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia while Britain and Turkey should are behind almost 100 years of Arab-Jewish conflict.

The Ottoman Empire suppressed Arab nationalism and committed atrocities against the Arab people and Christians (the Armenian genocide). When Britain (with Australian troops) overthrew the Turks in 1917 they failed to address the nascent Arab nationalism and even though T.E Lawrence had promised the Arabs their own kingdom, the British reneged on this. Later we had the Peel solution of two states side by side (rejected by the Arabs) and then the Belfour Declaration and so on and so on …

Back to this article, it’s right in its judgements but perhaps slightly amiss in suggesting the US alone is responsible for the debacle that is the Middle East and the suppression of peoples in numerous countries. I’m sure Mr Calligula will share some insightful comments, but I for one hold the British in contempt for their colonialism and repression over decades.

Comment from Ross
Time May 26, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Come now Terrance.Obama is just a more sophistocated puppet than Bush.They both do the willing of the Banking ,Military industrial complex.

When the banksters can create the increases in our GDP as debt,then all our Govts and businesses are servants to these unaccountable parasites.

Take off those rose coloured glasses and see the reality,as well as the stench of hypocracy.

Comment from John
Time May 27, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Yes Terrance, the history of British colonialism and imperialism is written in blood. So I don’t disagree that historically Britain shares the blame. Today however it is not a major global imperialist player other than as adjunct to US imperialism. I wouldn’t defend Obama or Clinton. In my opinion both are war criminals. They are sophisticated and nuanced George W Bushes.

Comment from Terrance
Time May 27, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Ross, not sure who has what glasses on. It seems that in your rush to blame everything on this US President, you have less to say about the rigged Chinese currency and its effect on world economic circumstances; or the European banking system or the spread of Chinese arms throughout Africa and parts of Asia.

I am not defending the US, far from it, but it seems we have a moderate but reforming President and yet he is being held responsible for the terror of previous administrations and for not changing the world within his first 14 months.

Any realist would concur that dismantling economic structures overnight can cause massive hardship to workers and working people.

Good policy can have unintended consequences, which is why revolutions often leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

As John brought to the fore a while back, there was a cost to Egypt in overthrowing a corrupt dictator. Likewise in Syria etc, the blood of workers is being spilled for a greater good. If Obama was to bring about the changes you advocate, then workers and families would suffer unless it is transitioned. Like it or not Ross, it is working men and women who are employed in arms and weapons manufacture. They will lose their jobs, homes, incomes and stability if there was a sudden end to US military production.

Comment from Tony
Time May 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Terrance, we are going to have to agree to disagree on the quality of the Clinton and Obama Administrations.

The Clinton Administration failed to veto the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act in 1999. Among economists who are not sophists for sectional interests, this decision is acknowledged as one of the key reasons for the collapse of the US economy in 2007, setting conditions for all the irresponsible practices that occurred. Additionally, Clinton failed to provide assistance in Rwanda during 1994, at a time when UN people on the ground repeatedly report actual evidence of genocide atrocities. This could lead one to the conclusion that perceived limited economic benefits did not justify the action.

Conversely, irrespective of what one thinks of Gadaffi, as a former favoured north African leader of the US, Obama supported action in Libya based ONLY on CLAIMS that atrocities WILL occur, not that they had. As I understand the matter, there is still no evidence of genocide atrocities (if you have evidence to the contrary, please provide). However, it should be noted criminal acts appear to have occured on both sides.

It has been widely reported in the European press that Al Qaeda fighters are influential commanders within the rebels in Libya (fighters they are arming), while at the same time Obama claimed a heightened threat from Al Qaeda in light of recent events. This appears to be a bizarre situation. In Libya they are the good guys, in Pakistan and the US they are they bad guys? There is something wrong with this narrative.

Libya is increasingly appearing to be about oil inerests, looting the state bank Libyan banks, plans to privatise assets and the move by Gaddafi to introduce the Gold Dinar to sell his, and other African/Arabic oil in. The effect of this would be devastating to the US dollar as the global reserve currency.

Irrespective of what Bush did while in office, he did not determine or radically alter the behaviour of the financial sector (other than giving all the rich big tax cuts and relaxing resource exploration conditions). Under Clinton, we saw the destructive behaviour commence as soon as he gave them the green light to operate across boundaries previously put in place to reduce structural volitility.

In spite of the episode developing under the Bush Adminstration, their attention was directed toward foreign objectives, which drew the ire of the international community. Street protests were massive around the world, particularly in relation to Iraq.

Obama gave trillions of dollars away in one of the worst bail outs for the taxpayer in history, effectively taking control of major corporations and in most cases NOT taking voting rights in those corporations. Management were left basically unchanged and only Madoff was charged as the token fall guy. Failure to accept control meant a key lever of influence was disabled. The Obama Adminstration has done little to unwind the mess, in spite of the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Dean Baker presenting action plans.

Arguably Obama’s most valuable contribution, healthcare reforms, were significantly weaker than many expected and failed to break the dominance of insurers and big pharma over the health sector. The two factors highlighted reasons for unaffordable US healthcare.

Even without foreign policy matters, it is problematic to suggest Clinton and Obama as being the best post WW2 leaders. The assertion would suggest other post WW2 leaders had done a dire job. Some had for sure, that I will not contest.

The suggestion of their greatness is questionable when viewed in the light of actual decisions with the most significant outcomes. And then if we look at the difficulty inherent when suggesting the ongoing civilian casualities in Iraq and Afghanistan are justifiable in terms of keeping Americans employed. In saying that, are you suggesting jobs are more important than lives?

Afghanistan will remain heavily occupied until at least 2014 when the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline is completed.

Comment from Terrance
Time May 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm

All good points Tony and nothing I take issue with. What I was suggesting to Ross et al is that a radical transformation of the US is unlikely to occur without major national and international repercussions.

With the bailout, I concur it was flawed policy, however the rise in unemployment and subsequent short-term economic cost was a justification, even if not the right solution.

I pointed to the arms industry – an evil tool of mass murder. However, to close down the US defence industry would send their economy, and many others, into recession/depression.

Another e.g. is foreign aid. A blunt tool of US foreign policy to prop up dictators and the like. Yet you take $1 bill out of Egypt and there will be a cost, even if as John has highlighted much of this went into the pockets of the elite.

As an economist I’d like John’s view of what would happen to poorer nations if overnight the US stopped ‘foreign aid’, even though it is used for nefarious purposes? You cannot simply withdraw mill/billions from an economy without a consequent impact, arguably to workers and those at the bottom.

The impatience to make Obama into the be-all and end-all of Presidents is rash. There is a cliche in politics about taking time to turn the Queen Mary around. I’ve seen that ship and it’s bigger than Tasmania! So while I think all your points are fair and reasonable, I ask you this – how long do you give a US President to undo and transform 60 years of shit US foreign policy? His first week, a month, a year, a term or two terms?

I cannot think of a single revolution or mass social change/movement that achieved its objectives in a year or two.

Comment from Tony
Time May 31, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Terrance: To answer your question, in this Administration, although I had early hopes of a desire for a change in direction of which you speak, I’m afraid I fell for the same rhetorical disconnect many others did. There has been no refocusing on the core failings of US governance, the more the Administration’s policies are revealed, the clearer it becomes there is no intent to change direction. It appears domestic policies are becoming increasingly disinterested in outcomes for the benefit of Americans, eg. the upset being caused by the TSA, health issues for those affected by the Gulf oil spill, suppression of radiation monitoring in the wake of the Fukushima disaster from regular to 3 monthly reports to keep the issue away from scrutiny (defying common sense at a time information is needed), ongoing relaxation of environmental controls, etc.

In my view, most significant positive domestic actions in recent times have been driven by the states: an attempt at universal healthcare in Vermont, the actions to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin for his anti-worker agenda and the effort to make the TSA conduct itself with more integrity by Texas.

These are state, not federal initiatives. Federal direction appears far too focused on adventurism and whipping up external threats, than addressing the real challenges domestically. They couldn’t hope to create domestic employment outside the military domain with this stance.

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