I do so want to believe that Barack Obama is on the right track. His brain is big, his style fresh, his pronouncements both logical and compelling, and it does feel good to have a president-elect elicit universal respect rather than make the world cringe. Indeed, he’s downright inspiring when he defends constitutional restraint on the presidency and shuns torture. Bush is so yesterday, but imagine how panicked we would now be if John McCain and Sarah Palin were about to take a turn at the wheel.
Yet, it all does hang on him. Yes, Obama. The superstar, and not that supporting cast of retreads from a failed past that have popped up in his administration in the making. Now that we have the list of his top economic and foreign policy picks—mostly a collection of folks who wouldn’t know change if it slapped them upside the head—we’ve got to hope that it’s Obama who is using them, and not the other way around.
Maybe he picked a bunch of Wall Street insiders to send a comforting message to the financial community that he is turning to folks just like them to get us out of the mess that they created. So far, Wall Street hasn’t done anything to pay back the taxpayers for the upward-of-a-trillion dollars wasted on that bailout. The credit markets remain frozen, and these banking grinches are stealing Christmas by further cutting individuals’ credit lines.
If there is a grand arc to Obama’s appointments strategy, it seems aimed at providing the appearance of continuity on the part of a leader who still promises to be very different. Clearly that was the case in retaining Robert Gates as secretary of defense and retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones as his White House national security adviser. Both choices could have been far worse. Jones has been involved in the exercise of “soft power” initiatives and seems like an otherwise sensible fellow. Gates has been a vast improvement over Donald Rumsfeld in grasping the limits of military power.
Gates also dared challenge the military-industrial complex over egregious military spending on projects such as the $65 billion F-22 stealth fighter plane that was designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses that were never built and has yet to fly a combat sortie in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars. That’s a start on cutting military spending, which under President Bush grew to be higher than at any time since World War II, exceeding the levels of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Thanks to Bush, the United States now spends as much as all of the rest of the world’s nations combined to defeat an enemy armed with a weapons arsenal that, in the case of the 9/11 attacks, could have been purchased for a couple hundred bucks at Home Depot.
Unfortunately, on Monday Obama stuck with the absurd “war on terror” language he inherited from Bush in describing the attacks in Mumbai conducted by 10 lightly armed fanatics who should have been quickly dispatched by a well-functioning local paramilitary force. These terrorists did not, as available evidence would indicate, have anything to do with the Taliban or al-Qaida based in Afghanistan, where the United States continues to wage the good war, as opposed to the bad one in Iraq, that Obama invoked during the presidential campaign: “Afghanistan is where the war on terror began and where it must end.”
Both wars are bad in representing exactly the wrong way to deal with “terror,” which should properly be thought of as representing pathology to be excised with surgical precision rather than bludgeoned with conventional warfare, which only recruits new fanatics through the killing of innocent civilians.
Finally, the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton seems a good one. To paraphrase Obama’s remarks during the primary debates, Hillary is peaceable enough, and also has the smarts to make a fine secretary of state. Her more hawkish rhetorical side will be muted by the position’s obligation to emphasize diplomacy. My prediction is that she will leave her mark by exploiting her pro-Israel creds to complete President Bill Clinton’s once-promising Mideast peace initiatives to finally provide the Palestinians, and Israelis, with viable states.
The problem with Obama’s national security team is not that he has picked hawks whom he cannot control; they are all professionals, who took the job expecting to go along with his game plan. The danger here, as with his economic advisers, is only that Obama may stop being Obama, the agent of change who electrified a nation.
Robert Scheer is editor in chief of Truthdig and the author of a new book, “The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.”
AP photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President-elect Barack Obama announces his national security team during a news conference in Chicago on Monday.