Commander in chief

As George Bush hands over the reins of power, James Turley looks at what to expect from the new man

Saturday January 10 was quite a day for anti-imperialists. Around the country, many thousands protested against the obscene Israeli assault on the Gaza strip - the London demonstration saw over 100,000 by the most realistic estimates with a reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ unseen in this country since the 2003 salad days of the anti-war movement.

Unseen in this country - because, though the atmospheres differ drastically, there certainly was a comparable outpouring of public feeling in America two and a half months ago, following the November 4 presidential election. The charismatic Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, rode anti-war and, above all, anti-Bush sentiment to become America’s president-elect. The atmosphere following the victory was electrifying and, while communists opposed a vote for Obama, we recognised that the victory pointed to the weakness of the most vulgar and open pro-imperialist ideas that have so dominated American politics at least since the 9/11 attacks. We shared the people’s sigh of relief, if not their optimism about the next four years.

On Tuesday January 20, short of a coup, tragic accident or nuclear armageddon, Obama will drop the ‘elect’ from that title and inherit executive power over the world’s most powerful state. An unrepentant Bush will leave office the most hated commander in chief for many decades - probably since Herbert Hoover, who presided over the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the worst years of the depression. In such a situation, Obama could be forgiven for stealing a little easy political money out of the Gaza crisis. He has become expert at outlining one policy in the language of another - scaling up involvement in Afghanistan without alienating the anti-war vote, for instance.

Yet Obama’s silence has been one of the most notable features of the entire course of events. It was only broken when a UN school was destroyed on January 6 by Israeli F16 jets, causing 40 deaths. He responded with a rather vague expression of “deep concern” over the loss of civilian life. This is even less specific than Bush’s state department, whose Sean McCormack at least declared that they would “like” an immediate ceasefire.

The silence of Mr Obama is rich in meaning. Firstly, it indicates what are very real (and very run-of-the-mill, by American establishment standards) political proclivities. We have seen them before, of course, in Obama’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a venomously Zionist lobby group in the US, where he declared his “clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel: our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy” (Ha’aretz March 3 2007); and in his appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, son of a supporter of the Zionist terror group, Irgun, and very much a chip off the old block, alongside a raft of Clinton (and Bush) administration veterans.

Secondly, it marks what is a difficult position for him. The bulk of his support, as we have noted, rides the ever stronger anti-war sentiment in America, a product both of ‘war weariness’ in the classic sense and of the total failure of the war’s primary agents to live up to their own bullshit - the grand moral aims sold to the American public are revealed to be little more than a cynical and inept power play in a politically complex region.

Israel is obviously a major part of that intervention; if it is to be strong enough to play the role demanded of it, the repression of the Palestinians is necessary. Many Obama voters are highly unlikely to want the US to maintain that kind of ally - a local military strongman, however ‘established’ its ‘democracy’ - because they do not want that kind of America.

Nevertheless, Obama inherits with his new job the mantle of defender of American capitalism. The ‘American’ part of that is more important than ever now (as articles in this paper have repeatedly emphasised, the current economic crisis has thrown up strong tendencies towards protectionism and the establishment of competing spheres of influence and trade blocs). He inherits, moreover, an American economic-military hegemony in historic decline, as did Bush before him; its interests lie in plugging gaps in its power. To this role, Israel is more, rather than less, important than ever.

It is a role that Obama will find more difficult to square with the basis of his presidency, as events develop. His victory did not happen in spite of the needs of capitalism, but as an almost conscious choice of the capitalist class. Remember the coverage of the election campaign: every week, the John McCain camp was hit by a new humiliation, from the candidate’s own gaffes over the economy to running mate Sarah Palin’s gaffes over ... where does one start? And every week, a new triumph for Obama - welcomed rapturously in Europe, by Germans waving the stars and stripes; eloquently speaking to the pain of ‘ordinary Americans’ in hard times ...

But, as popular wisdom goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The bourgeoisie is a minority class - its power rests on assuring the consent of other classes to its rule. Under Bush, this rule was founded on hegemony over the radical-reactionary part of the petty bourgeoisie, in the form of Christian far-right mass organisations, whose mobilisation could deliver a block vote counted in the millions, and whose energetic activism ensured ongoing impetus for ideological campaigns.

Obama offered capitalism a better deal, at a time when the world economy and the imperialist quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan necessitated a serious shift in the basis for its political rule - an alliance with ‘big labor’, identity politicians and sundry others; left-leaning sections of all classes with a left petty bourgeois political character. In place of Christian moralism it had liberal moralism; in place of Christian activists, it had the much-eulogised ‘grassroots movements’.

His power hinges on keeping this deal together. It may be easier than it appears, if he can make serious progress on the economy. His job may be further eased if ‘realism’ over the Middle East leads to less use of direct application of ordinance and more reliance on ‘soft war’ strategy, such as sanctions (the polite word for siege). Imperialism itself, however, will prove to be non-negotiable, as it is the condition for a functioning capitalist world economy.

In 2003, as its turn to the anti-war movement began to bear fruit, the Socialist Workers Party hit upon the idea of selling incidental slogans of that movement back to it in poster and t-shirt form. Apart from ‘Make tea not war’, which was rendered by the dread touch of SWP earnestness entirely humourless, there was one of George W Bush in ‘wanted’ poster style with the slogan, “World’s number one terrorist”.

While even the more politically green recruits would be justified in feeling patronised at such an item, there is a sense in which it is simply naively, bluntly true. Military hegemony is aimed at not having to fight for dominance, but ensuring the quiescence of antagonists. This quiescence is based inevitably on fear. All this is perfectly clearly admitted by US military strategists - the open aim of spectacular ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaigns is precisely, in Churchill’s words, to spread a lively terror. The US is the world number one; it relies on terror. Bush is the commander in chief; he can justifiably claim - should he wish - to be the world’s number one terrorist.

That is, until this Tuesday.

The end of that day will see that title usurped. Because, while the SWP in its desperate pandering to formless popular sentiment uses this epithet as a moral admonition (how dare he be such a terrorist - the evil man!), it is more accurately characterised as a job description.

This brings us to the third, and final, significance of Obama’s silence over Gaza. His explanation for that silence was simply that he refused to comment on foreign policy until he inherited the job. We could consider this an idiotic excuse for not wanting to choose between the Israeli Scylla and the anti-war Charybdis, but there is another aspect to it.

Obama carefully positioned himself in the early stages of his campaign as somebody unsullied by the wheeler-dealing of the political establishment. He was a new face, one apparently unafraid to speak his mind and rouse a crowd. His connection to the people was supposedly elemental, rather than technical.

But first there were his increasingly clear rightwing statements; then there were his cabinet appointments; and now there is his polite silence until he takes office. It is obvious that Obama, whether he wants to or not, is playing by all the rules. This goes for those enshrined in law, and for those that are merely a matter of etiquette (as in the quietude over Gaza). He is every inch a career politician, manipulating mass sentiment and bourgeois support expertly and ruthlessly to strengthen his position.