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Keeping Track of Change (It Takes More Than Hope)

History selected one man to oversee critical points in the defeat of the United States Armed Forces by two nations in Southwestern Asia. And in the short term, the ever obsequious American media rewarded him lavishly for it. That man was General David Petraeus.

The corporate perception managers, the governments of both Bush and Obama, the military itself, and most of the general population of the United States, participated in a mythology about Petraeus – that he was a modern-day Clausewitz specializing in counter-insurgency, an intellectual warrior for the post 9-11 era.

Emblematic of that genius was a media event called The Surge, which accompanied an operation that was characterized mostly by paying people not to attack US soldiers in Iraq. The second surge was in Afghanistan, and we can see clearly now that this operation inaugurated the end game of defeat for the US in Afghanistan. The US was, contrary to its wishes, expelled by the Iraqis – another defeat.

That these are not seen as defeats by most Americans is a testament to that perception management bloc of military and media, which has managed to report on these wars for years now without ever using the word “defeat.” At this point, helicopters are never shot down; they “crash” under circumstances that are not yet clear.

For anyone seeking real reform of America's foreign and defense policies in the years ahead, Obama's introduction of his national security team was a mixed bag. Set against an increasingly worrisome national security environment -- from the mounting tensions in India/Pakistan to Sunday's New York Times front-page story about epidemic U.S. military-industrial corruption to this week's Washington Post story about Pentagon plans to station 20,000 U.S. troops on the American homeland by 2011 -- it was at least refreshing to see a new row of faces to replace those who have brought us the tragic missteps of recent years. Yet what these appointments really suggest about Obama's broader prospects for reform requires vigilant public attention.

As someone who seeks fundamental reform of so much of the American system, I've been heartened to see a growing number of voices on the airwaves and blogosphere express concern at certain choices made by the Obama transition team that are hard to reconcile with the public's hopes for change. This kind of unrelenting pressure for reform is vital and has already provoked an entirely healthy discourse even among Obama's most ardent supporters, between those who seek far-reaching change and those who see themselves as more pragmatic. Since Obama has not yet even been inaugurated, these voices can only speculate on what his governance might look like, and there's a danger of being either prematurely critical or overly complacent. Still, it's never too early to be vigilant. Let us not forget that it was Obama himself who invited each of us to fulfill our end of the contract between citizen and president in an historic effort to bring about change.

For my part, I like making lists. So rather than over-interpret any single decision, I thought it would be a good idea to catalog some key appointments and policy statements thus far - the promising alongside the worrisome - to take stock of and prepare for the bigger picture the transition has begun to paint of what lies ahead.

First, the good news:

  • Improving International Relations. Reciprocating the world's resounding approval of his election, Obama is expected to appoint ambassadors who are experienced diplomats rather than follow his predecessor's example of awarding ambassadorships to big campaign donors.
  • Restoring Cabinet Level Status for U.N. Ambassador. Signaling real change in America's approach to foreign affairs, the appointment of a new and improved Dr. Rice to the role of U.N. Ambassador was compounded by the announcement that the position will also be restored to cabinet rank.

Now, the developments that are, at minimum, twists on the spirit and pledges of the campaign and, at maximum, a troubling departure from them:

  • Protracted Iraq Timetable. Though opposition to the Iraq War was a defining feature of Obama's early candidacy, his position on a timetable for withdrawal has grown elastic with time. Though he had already begun to retreat from his original 16-month troop withdrawal commitment long before last week's the Status of Forces Agreement arrangement was struck with Iraq, this agreement, which makes December 31, 2011 a date certain for withdrawal, may spare Obama the awkward work of having to explain a softening of his originally firm commitment.
  • Gates and Lieberman. To further dilute his once-impassioned antiwar position, Obama's decisions to have kept Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an opponent of any date-certain withdrawal from Iraq, and to have come to the defense of Joe Lieberman maintaining his senate chairmanships, may be politically shrewd but are dissonant with the antiwar spirit of his campaign.
  • FISA and Wiretapping. Obama dismayed many supporters when he voted for last summer's FISA legislation, granting telecom companies legal immunity from prosecution for wiretapping. More broadly, there has to date been no evidence of any movement to redress his predecessor's far-reaching assaults on civil liberties.
  • War Crimes Accountability. The new Obama Justice Department is not expected to launch criminal probes of forged intelligence, torture, and other unlawful practices undertaken by the Bush administration. But without real accountability for these trespasses, what motivation will there be in Washington for reform?
  • Lobbyists Appointed to Transition and Cabinet Positions. Despite his lauded vetting practices and his campaign pledge that "no political appointees in an Obama administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years," Obama has selected a number of people for his transition team and cabinet (including Tom Daschle) who have served as lobbyists or worked for lobbying firms in the fields in which they will be involved.
  • Misplaced Rhetoric Toward Russia. During the late phases of his campaign, Obama escalated his rhetoric toward Russia in the wake of its five-day war with Georgia in August 2008. Given the now growing evidence that Georgia initiated the conflict and that the Bush administration concealed this from the American public, Obama's anti-Russian rhetoric represents both a non-change from the belligerence of the Bush years and seems to betray the undue influence of longstanding Cold War strategists among his advisors.
  • A Nuclear Double Standard Toward Iran. When, just days after his election, Obama declared it "unacceptable" for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon in a world where other nations (including Israel) have nuclear weapons, he sent a signal that echoes the position taken by the Bush administration over the past eight years. Right or wrong, this position is read around the world as a double- standard on nuclear policy. Had Obama instead spoken of the need for global nuclear disarmament (Iran, Israel, and the U.S. included), this message would have been a departure from the posture of the Bush years.
  • Surging in Afghanistan. While the matter of the worsening situation in Afghanistan is a sensitive one, Obama's late campaign call for a surge in the war-torn country was a departure from the antiwar platform on which he first appealed to the American people. It seemed instead to suggest a shifting of certain troops from Iraq, where Obama had opposed such a surge, to Afghanistan, rather than simply bringing those troops home. Another model for implementing a peacekeeping presence in Afghanistan might have been more compatible with the spirit of Obama's original commitments to reducing unilateral U.S. military activity overseas.
  • Saber-Rattling at Bin Laden. While a police action to capture al Qaeda leadership should have been America's first priority after 9/11 and it remains a stain on the Bush administration that it knowingly distracted the nation with other pursuits, pursuing Bin Laden, who is believed to be in Pakistan, implies expansion of U.S. military activity into the territory of this increasingly unstable nuclear power. Though it is hard to argue with the need to capture Bin Laden and hold him accountable, Obama's sweeping statements toward killing the leader beg the question: at what cost?

(Note to reader: If, while reading the above list, you feel I have omitted something, positive or negative, please post a comment to that effect so we can begin to build a comprehensive "change checklist" as the new administration gets under way)

    On a host of other issues from the drug war to the death penalty to the Patriot Act to military-industrial and other corporate corruption to gay marriage to reproductive rights to gun control to gays in the military, it is not yet clear to what extent Obama will defy or fulfill the hopes expressed by his supporters during the campaign. But broadly speaking, what the various cabinet appointments and statements of policy above illustrate is an administration and worldview that are simply more centrist than change-oriented. To those who are critical of this, it represents a retreat from the inspiring passions of the campaign. To those who support it, the choices simply reflect the necessary pragmatism to get things done in Washington. They see Obama as avoiding the error of Clinton's first term, in which his early struggles were attributed to an overabundance of inexperienced Washington players on his team. This may be a smart lessons-learned strategy, but when there have been virtually no reform-oriented or progressive candidates appointed or even floated as names for cabinet-level posts, one has to wonder whether the pragmatism argument isn't perhaps being overplayed.

    To his credit, Obama addressed this in a two-part answer when asked about the impression of centrism in his appointments at last Monday's press conference. First, he recognized the need to balance the impulse for change with a measure of pragmatism, stating that his administration would "combine experience with fresh thinking." That's reassuring. But he then went further, making the bolder statement that, notwithstanding his cabinet appointments, "the vision for change...comes from me. That's my job, is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure, then, that my team is implementing it." After eight years of vaulting executive power exercised by a "decider" in the White House to whom Congress and the public gave so much power, being told by a leader basically to trust him is uncomfortably familiar. Worse still, it contradicts the crowning message of the Obama campaign.

    "I am asking you to believe," candidate Obama rousingly told us, "not just in my ability to bring about a real change in Washington...I'm asking you to believe in yours."

    Well, there's the rub. For what Obama correctly recognized as a candidate he -- and we -- must now remember: that no person, no matter how talented, inspiring, or well-intended, can single-handedly bring about the kind of far-reaching reforms that our deeply wounded society needs. It will instead require unrelenting vigilance from all of us - including making ourselves heard when Obama's path appears more inclined toward conciliation than reform. When in recent weeks comparisons to Lincoln were drawn to explain some of Obama's counter-intuitive cabinet appointments, Congressman John Conyers offered the wonderful retort, "it tells me I'm going to have to be Frederick Douglass to his Abraham Lincoln." Recalling the pressure Douglass exerted on the 16th president's policymaking, Conyers did us the great service of speaking to the much-needed Frederick Douglass inside each of us, underscoring that we the public must be prepared to commit ourselves - beyond any level of civic engagement we've known before -- to exert pressure on our political leadership to make the changes we seek. For it was Douglass, after all, who noted that "power concedes nothing without demand."

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