February 2008   

New Commander-in-Chief, Same Bloody System of Oppression

Obama Presidency:
U.S. Imperialism Tries a Makeover

President Obama, Vice President Biden with war secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff at the
Pentagon, January 28. Wall Street Journal considered new war cabinet “not bad.” (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!

On January 20, the baton was formally passed from George W. Bush to Barack Hussein Obama as leader of the United States, the most powerful imperial power in the history of the world, presently mired in losing imperialist wars and the deepest economic crisis in three-quarters of a century. The fact that for the first time ever, a black person had been elected president, was celebrated by well over a million people who thronged to the inaugural in Washington, D.C. and tens of millions more who watched it on television around the U.S. and the world. For the African American Obama to take office in the highest elected position in this country reflected a considerable social change in this country founded on chattel slavery, where Jim Crow segregation continued into the 1960s – and where in the 21st century blacks and Latinos have still been prevented from voting. But this has not changed the system of imperialist capitalism one iota: with Obama at the helm, the U.S. is bombing Iraq and Afghanistan to hell, marauding in Pakistan, supplying the weaponry for Israeli slaughter in Gaza, throwing millions out of work in the U.S. while enslaving workers with starvation wages around the planet.

The Internationalist Group did not call for a vote for Obama, the candidate of the Democratic Party, one of the twin parties of racist American capitalism, nor do we celebrate his presidency. Instead, we called for a revolutionary workers party and warned of the illusions that have been awakened (with help from the opportunist left) that the election of the first African American president would represent “change we can believe in,” as Obama’s campaign propaganda trumpeted. Our stand was and is guaranteed to be unpopular, for now. Coming after eight years of the Bush regime, a government born of a judicial coup d’état which was hated around the world and widely despised even in the United States, many identified their hopes with Obama. After a bitter election campaign in which Democrat Hillary Clinton and then Republican John McCain and his running mate, the ultra-rightist Sarah Palin, resorted to bigoted appeals, many young people, black and white, older veterans of the Civil Rights movement, white liberals and Latino and Asian immigrants hailed Obama’s victory as a blow against racism. But Obama in office will preside over a racist system.

Israeli war crime: Zionist invaders deliberately targeted Gaza civilian population. Right: Palestinian man in anguish over his two sons and nephew killed by Israeli tank shell on January 5. (Photo: Mahmud Hams/AP)

Inauguration Day was a huge orchestrated feel-good celebration of “inclusion” and “diversity.” TV cameras focused on signs saying “We have overcome” and “Yes, we did.” The Amsterdam News (17 January), New York’s premier black newspaper, ran a big front-page photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the headline, “The Dream Realized,” referring to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. (Ironically, the article below it headlined, “Cop arrested over shooting of unarmed black man.”) A poll reported that 69 percent of the population thought King’s dream of racial harmony had been realized. The New York Times (21 January) proclaimed “a day of celebration that climaxed a once-inconceivable journey for the man and his country.” It also noted that when the now-ex president Bush took off from the Capitol in a helicopter many in the crowd gave a farewell Bronx cheer “along with some one-fingered salutes.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer took a break from spewing out a steady diet of Zionist war propaganda for Israel’s invasion of Gaza to quote from a Jamaican woman who said “America can give itself a couple of pats on the back” for electing a black president.

At his inauguration, Obama proclaimed a “new era of responsibility,” hailing “loyalty and patriotism” and “spirit of service” embodied in the soldiers who “patrol far-off deserts” (Iraq and Afghanistan) and fought in places like Khe Sanh (Vietnam). He referred to the economic crisis wracking the U.S., blaming it on the greed of some and “our collective failure to make hard choices” – as if the implosion of the banking system after years of unbridled speculation was also the fault of working people whose wages fell steadily while the Wall Street moguls and captains of industry wallowed in obscene wealth. One commentator dared to break the reverential praise to ask of Obama’s speech, “why did it come out so much sounding like Ronald Reagan?” In fact, Obama has often praised Reagan for fostering “entrepreneurship” after “all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s” during which “government had grown and grown.” Far from representing “change,” Obama is firmly in the mold of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats,” who appeal to the left in primary elections, run to the center in the general election and govern from the right.

Internationally, rulers, media and manufactured popular opinion uniformly greeted the new American president with enthusiasm. In Mexico, even “progressive” intellectuals, generally skeptical of U.S. intentions and actions, were caught up in “Obamamania.” La Jornada (20 January) editorialized that “Obama’s path leads us to believe that he will arrive at the White House with signs of human and social sensibility, of respect for other countries,” unlike his predecessor. Columnists opined that “one must give Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt.” But other Spanish and Latin American writers noted “The Emperor’s Old Clothes” (Carlo Frabetti) and “Imperial Leopardism” (Atilio Borón), from Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (Il gattopardo) about 19th century Sicily, where “something must change so that everything can stay the same.” The Washington inaugural was watched with special attention in Gaza where many hoped for a statement from Obama with even the slightest criticism of the criminal Israeli bombardment and occupation. Instead, the new president declared that “Israel’s security is paramount” – a virtual endorsement of the massacre of over 1,300 Palestinians, the Zionists’ greeting to their new patron.

Palestinians in Gaza cafe watch inaugural in Washington. Many hoped for Obama criticism of Israel’s
murderous bombing/invasion. But after weeks of complicit silence the new U.S. president declared
security is paramount the same policy as Bush. (Photo: Bruno Stevens/Cosmos for Newsweek)

Continuity the Ruling Class Can Count On

While many liberals and reformist leftists deluded themselves into believing that Obama would provide a break from the policies of the past, the Democratic candidate was careful to commit himself to very little – and now he is ripping up his few campaign promises one after another. The shift began with his cabinet appointments, starting with Rahm Emmanuel, who volunteered to work on an Israeli army base during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and whose father was a member of the right-wing Zionist terrorist Irgun.  The new administration is chock full of recycled officials from the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, starting with his primary rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. To this was added a prominent holdover from the Bush regime, Robert Gates, as war secretary. Gates, a long-time senior CIA official, was up to his neck in the Iran-Contra scandal and the war on Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s. Alongside these war hawks, Obama’s national security advisor is General James Jones, the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, who up to December 15 was a director of the Boeing aircraft and Chevron oil corporations. “Military-industrial complex” anyone? 

On the campaign trail and since, Obama occasionally indulged in some populist rhetoric, but it’s just for show. If his national security team is loaded with Pentagon brass, his economic team is top heavy with Wall Street execs and members of the academic-financial axis. Ben Bernanke stays on as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, and Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary will keep on servicing the big banks as he did for Bush as president of the New York Fed, and for Clinton as a deputy Treasury secretary. His bosses then were former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin and Larry Summers (a devotee of conservative economist Milton Friedman) who is now head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. Rubin and Summers ditched restrictions that kept commercial banks out of investment banking and deregulated derivatives, setting the stage for the orgy of speculation that triggered the current crisis. As candidate, Obama joined McCain in endorsing the $725 billion bank bailout, and as he was about to take office he ordered Congress to fork over the second half of this huge money pot, or else.

No wonder a Wall Street Journal (28 November 2008) editorial praised “Obama’s War Cabinet” as “not bad.” In the same issue of the bankers’ daily, George W. Bush’s former Rasputin, Karl Rove, called Obama’s economic team “reassuring” and “thanksgiving cheer” for businessmen. A few weeks later (9 January) the conservative Journal’s Washington commentator Gerald Seib wrote: “Rarely has a president – to say nothing of a Democratic president – been thrown into the arms of the business community on his way in the door as has Barack Obama.” Ever since the election, the president-elect went on an offensive to court Republicans. He consulted often with his opponent John McCain, and even had a private dinner with a gaggle of right-wing pundits, one of whom (William Kristol) wrote a column summing up Obama’s “no-dramatic-change-in-policy-in-the-White-House” line as “continuity we can believe in” (New York Times, 12 January). Two weeks later, Kristol published his last column for the Times, proclaiming Obama’s inauguration “the end of a conservative era.”

Liberals are not so sanguine. A writer for the Internet magazine Salon (17 January), David Sirota, headlined “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street,” adding: “The president-elect’s support of the bank bailout is payback to his wealthy Wall Street supporters.” He noted that the Democrat was “a politician who raised more Wall Street dough than any other,” and “whose inauguration festivities are being underwritten by the very bankers who are benefiting from the bailout largesse.” Payback, certainly, but Obama can hardly be accused of “selling out” to the money men. Not only is he the standard bearer of a party that has been a pillar of U.S. capitalism since the 1830s, his campaign was financed from the outset by big bucks from high finance, as well as from well-heeled Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley venture capital. Only a quarter of the record-breaking $745 million his presidential campaign raised came from small donors (New York Times, 6 January). The first black president is a vivid demonstration of how American “democracy” is government over the working people by the capitalist politicians and for the bourgeoisie.

Not only have the Democratic president’s personnel picks and economic policies pleased conservatives, so have his other moves. Notably, Obama stopped talking about withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 16 months and now refers to being “on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq.” At a mid-December meeting in Chicago with Obama’s national security team, a plan was presented, drawn up by Bush’s generals Petraeus and Odierno, that called only for withdrawing about 5 percent of U.S. forces (7,000-8,000 troops) over six months while many units remaining in Iraq would be “remissioned” from combat troops to “trainers” and “enablers.” Even after the “withdrawal” some time in the future, plans are for close to 50,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely according to Gen. Odierno (New York Times, 29 January). Tens of thousands more will be stationed just over the border in Kuwait and other Gulf states, not to mention the 30,000-plus mercenaries and over 100,000 other “contractors” paid for by the U.S..

Obama has sought to piece off his liberal/“progressive” supporters with symbolic gestures like executive orders to close the Guantánamo torture prison (a year from now), and limiting interrogation techniques to those in the Army Field Manual 2-22.3 (which doesn’t include “waterboarding”). But this only applies to prisoners captured in “armed conflicts” (not “counterterrorism” operations) and does not include special techniques too secret to be made public. Meanwhile, “extraordinary renditions” of prisoners to torture regimes will continue and even increase, as the U.S. tries to offload many of the 245 prisoners presently at Guantánamo. It is unclear what will happen to the over 600 prisoners crammed into even more gruesome facilities at the U.S. airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan, at least two of whom have been tortured to death. And Obama has no intention of prosecuting the hundreds of U.S. officers and military personnel implicated in the torture as well as their civilian bosses in the Pentagon and White House, or the Justice Department lawyers and top officials who authorized these war crimes.

The essential continuity of Obama’s presidency with that of Bush was demonstrated in concrete action during his first week in office.

  • In Afghanistan, on January 23, three days after the inaugural, U.S. Special Forces staged a raid in Laghman province, gunning down 16 villagers, including two women and three children. After angry protests of hundreds in the provincial capital, even the American satrap installed as Afghan “president,” Hamid Karzai, demanded a stop to such raids, to no avail.
  • Across the border in Pakistan, on the same night as the Afghan raid, missiles launched from remotely controlled U.S. aircraft known as Predators killed at least 15 people in the region of Waziristan. Such attacks were authorized by secret orders signed by President Bush last July, and his successor is continuing this policy – a clear act of aggression which the Pakistani government has repeatedly denounced.
  • And in Iraq, on January 25, U.S. Special Operations troops shot and killed a couple in their home near Kirkuk, carrying out this murder in front of their 8-year-old daughter.

Obama escalates forces in Afghanistan by almost 50 percent. Shades of the SS: U.S. troops in Helmand province fly death’s head flag. (Reuters)

Since then, Obama has announced that he is ordering 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, an escalation of almost 50 percent of U.S. forces in the country. And the future “withdrawal” of “combat troops” from Iraq has been stretched from 16 to 19 months, with almost no reductions in 2009, while the number of “residual forces” to be stationed there indefinitely keeps growing.

In short, Barack (“Bomb ‘em”) Obama, who early on posed as an opponent of the Iraq war, has quickly become a certified war criminal. But have you seen any protests asking the popular black president – as they did of Bush, Nixon and LBJ – “how many kids did you kill today”? The “antiwar movement” called off protests for the duration of the election campaign in order to elect Obama, and it’s still covering for him. Because that is the role of this popular front – to chain protests against imperialist slaughter to the Democrats, who are historically and today the main war party of American capitalism. Obama never was an antiwar candidate, he only opposed “dumb” wars like Iraq that were doomed to failure.

But there’s dumb ... and dumber. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq has drained U.S. military and economic strength in a quest for world domination. Obama’s vow to escalate the war in Afghanistan, spread over a far larger, mountainous territory, and at the same time to attack Pakistan, with eight times the population and the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons to boot, could set off a chain reaction that would send the entire region up in flames. Any genuine opponent of imperialism must break with both capitalist parties and build a workers party on the program of international socialist revolution.

Labor’s Honeymoon with Obama

While black, Latino and young voters went most heavily for Obama (95 percent, 67 percent and 66 percent respectively), one of the key sectors supporting him was organized labor. Despite racist appeals to “Joe Six-Pack,” particularly in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, exit polls reported that 59 percent of union members voted for Obama. Particularly after the 2000 and 2004 elections, when the Republicans’ “ground operation” outdid the Democrats’, and eight years of relentless anti-worker action by the Bush regime, labor went all-out to elect Democrats this year. Unions were major financial contributors to Democratic candidates, pouring almost half a billion dollars into their campaign war chests, and providing millions of man and woman hours in phone banks, campaigning door-to-door and other volunteer activities. Contingents from both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations marched in the Inaugural Parade. “Happy days are here again for the labor movement in the United States,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor (2 February) summing up the views of labor officialdom.

The union tops are banking heavily that Obama will provide concrete support to labor. They were ecstatic when the new president invited labor leaders to a ceremony signing three executive orders that undid Bush administration policies favoring employers. Vice-president Joe Biden greeted them with the words, “Welcome back to the White House.” Obama declared, “I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem, to me it's part of the solution.” This welcome and verbal endorsement alone was enough to ensure years of support from the bureaucrats, who above all seek to sell their services to the ruling class in return for some “clout” with the government. They were full of praise over Obama’s selection of Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis as his new Labor Secretary. And they applauded his signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act overturning a time limit on suits against discrimination imposed by the Supreme Court. As they dream of a “new New Deal” under Obama, many would like to revive a slogan from the 1930s, “The president wants you to join a union.”

In fact, the incoming administration let it be known last month that it wanted the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to merge into a single national labor federation. The leaders of the 12 largest unions in the U.S. dutifully met in Washington to call for reuniting the labor movement: “The union presidents issued their joint call after the transition team for President-elect Barack Obama signaled that it would prefer dealing with a united movement, rather than a fractured one that often had two competing voices” (New York Times, 8 January). The meeting was arranged by former Democratic Congressman David Bonior. We did not support either side in the 2005 split among the labor tops, nor do we expect anything positive from them reuniting at the behest of the capitalist government. Rather, what we’re liable to get is more protectionist measures, like the “Buy American” provision for structural steel and iron in infrastructure projects under the economic stimulus act. Instead of international workers solidarity, United Steelworkers (USW) president Leo Gerard vituperated against imports from China. “It’s time for economic patriots to stand up in our country,” said Gerard, who is Canadian.

Strikers at Chrysler’s Warren Stamping Plant, October 2007. UAW leaders are pushing contract concessions under government plan to rescue auto companies which will eliminate 50,000 auto workers’ jobs. Bailout also includes no-strike provision.
(Photo: Reuters)

United Auto Workers (UAW) leaders have been pushing Obama for the auto “bailout,” under which huge sums – currently $39 billion and climbing – are to be funneled to General Motors and Chrysler to keep these two American industrial giants afloat. Yet these billions are to be given to the employers, not the workers, and will involve huge “givebacks” by the unions. The companies are demanding that they be allowed to substitute their (presently near worthless) stock for billions of dollars they are obligated to pay to health care trusts the finance health and retirement benefits of UAW members. Already UAW president Ron Gettelfinger has agreed to give up the job bank which supplemented unemployment benefits for laid-off auto workers. The bosses also want the union to agree to lower labor costs to the level of foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S. (Gettelfinger already agreed in 2007 to cut wages for new hires to $14.50 an hour, half the level of current employees). Some 50,000 auto workers’ jobs are to be eliminated under this “rescue” plan, which also turned out to have an unpublicized no-strike clause. But what do the UAW bureaucrats care, they have no intention of striking to defend their members.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led by Andrew Stern has been a long-time supporter of Obama in Illinois, and endorsed him for president in early February 2008, long before the AFL-CIO, many of whose affiliates initially supported Hillary Clinton. Stern brags that the union spent $82 million electing Democrats in 2008. The SEIU’s preference for Obama is not accidental, since Stern’s calling card is “partnership” between unions, employers and the government. The SEIU chief posed as a “reformer” and has put resources into union organizing campaigns while the hidebound AFL-CIO chiefs prefer to spend their time hobnobbing with Democratic politicians on Capitol Hill. But Stern has also formed alliances with such virulent labor haters as Wal-Mart (over health care) and the colonial government of Puerto Rico (against the militant FMPR teachers union). Stern runs the SEIU as his personal fiefdom, and has gone to the capitalist state to oust dissidents in the union, recently against California health care workers. He is also a virulent defender of the present bankrupt economic system, saying “I totally believe that America should be focused on capitalism and competition” (CNN, 31 January).

Above all, labor officialdom is pinning its hopes on Congress passing and Obama signing into law the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Under this bill (H.R. 800), unions would be recognized on the basis of a “card check” if at least 50 percent of the employees in a company or location sign cards affiliating to a union as their representative. The union tops hope that this would turn around decades of declining membership. They figure a card check would make organizing a lot easier since they wouldn’t have to go through a stacked union “election” under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). At present, employers brazenly intimidate employees, threatening to close the workplace, barring union organizers from the plant and firing union sympathizers with abandon. The NLRB, deeply hostile to unions, seldom reinstates workers in their jobs, and it routinely takes years for cases to be decided. But while a card check may aid union organizing, the EFCA still asserts the government’s right to certify union representation. Or not. In addition, it includes a provision for compulsory arbitration of an initial two-year contract if the employer and union cannot reach an agreement.

Liberals and reformist leftists who pursue the illusion of making the capitalist system more “worker-friendly,” are universally in favor of the EFCA. How effective it would be in increasing union membership in the face of an employer class that has made union-busting into a $4 billion industry is another matter. Canada has a card check law and only 17 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized (as opposed to 7.5 percent in the U.S.). But we have a more fundamental difference. Marxists oppose all interference by the capitalist government in union affairs, and warn that the EFCA can be used to hamstring militant action by labor. We’re for getting rid of all obstacles to unionization, such as the requirement for stacked NLRB elections. We participate in union mobilizations in opposition to the employer offensive against the “card check” bill. But rather than calling to support the EFCA, we fight for full freedom of workers to organize and for total independence of the unions from state control. As Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1940 essay, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”: “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state.”

See also:  Why Marxists Oppose All Government Intervention in the Unions  (23 February 2009)
                 The “Obama Socialists” (23 February 2009)
Not a “New New Deal,” But a Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (23 February 2009)
Barack Obama vs. Black Liberation  (23 February 2009)

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com