Barack Obama and John McCain are moving to the right politically now that they are assured the presidential nomination of their respective parties. Both candidates engaging in stunning displays of what is often labeled "pragmatism." This is actually characteristic of ruling class-controlled elections in the U.S. where the "viable," elite-supported candidates cater to the requirements of the plutocracy and ignore the needs of the great majority. While the two Senators share many basic policies and principles, they also have important differences, especially on tactics to achieve common goals. They have also solidified the group of ruling class-connected advisers who surround each of them, a kind of "government in waiting," whose makeup offers clues to likely policy approaches once one of them becomes president.
One of the central issues in this election is the question of "change," with Obama arguing that national priorities must be altered to better reflect the needs of the people. Yet three days after Hillary Clinton pulled out of the race for the Democratic nomination, Obama declared on CNBC: "Look, I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market." Obama failed to note, however, that the market loves and rewards those who already have money and power, not those lacking these advantages. To say that you "love the market" is akin to saying that you love the ruling class (the top 1 percent of the population, that controls 20 percent of the country’s income and almost 40 percent of the county’s wealth) and do not care about the great majority (the 60 percent of the population that controls only 25 percent of the income and 5 percent of the wealth). To say "I love the market"—at a time when the financial system is deflating because of decades of lies about how great unregulated markets are which fueled rampant speculation, phony valuations, and deceitful assurances—is to be deaf to the reality of how powerful interests are protected by the government while everyone else gets a lecture on personal responsibility.
"Change we can believe in," would involve confronting the perversity of market driven capitalism. The need to confront a system that causes the destruction of our environment and of so many lives and communities through unemployment, dangerous working conditions, low pay, poverty, and lack of health care is one of the central issues of our time.
Proving his class stand for the rich at about the same time as he declared his love for the market, Obama appointed Jason Furman of the Brookings Institution, a Robert Rubin protégé, to head his economic team. Rubin was one of Bill Clinton’s treasury secretaries, is currently the chair of Citigroup’s executive committee, and co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Citigroup is one of the largest banks in the world and the CFR is a private think tank and membership organization properly labeled the citadel of the ruling class. Soon after his appointment, Furman stated that Rubin and two other CFR members, Lawrence Summers (another former Clinton Secretary of the Treasury) and Federal Reserve Board Vice Chair Alan Blinder would be the Obama campaign’s key economic advisers.
Furman is known for his anti-worker policies. He is, for example, one of Wal-Mart’s most prominent defenders, calling this giant vampire corporation, a "progressive success story." For him, Wal-Mart’s critics are the real threat and he has said that "efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits" are creating "collateral damage" to the economy. Wal-Mart is owned by the Walton family, one of the wealthiest on the planet, with about $80 billion in assets, yet their corporation pays its workers barely above minimum wage and offers few benefits. Marco Trbovich, a senior aide to the president of the United Steelworkers, said Furman "is an unalloyed cheerleader for the trade policies that have been very destructive to manufacturing jobs in this country."
Obama’s Senior Working Group on Foreign Policy (June 2008)
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, former Secretary of State, CFR Director, a CFR member for 33 years.
Warren Christopher, former Secretary of State, CFR member for 35 years, a corporate lawyer.
William Perry, former Secretary of Defense, CFR member for 9 years, Senior Fellow Hoover Institution, on a number of corporate boards.
Anthony Lake, former National Security Adviser, Professor at Georgetown University, was a CFR member for 25 years.
Richard Danzig, former Secretary of the Navy, a "counterterrorism expert."
Lee Hamilton, former Congressperson, CFR member for 13 years, co-chair of both the 9-11 Commission and Iraq Study Group.
Sam Nunn, former Senator, CFR member for 10 years, on corporate boards, including Chevron, Dell, & Coke.
David Boren, former Senator and Governor, CFR member for 19 years.
James Steinberg, former Deputy National Security Adviser, a CFR member for 20 years.
Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, a CFR member for 16 years.
Greg Craig, former senior adviser to Albright, a Washington lawyer with Williams and Connolly law firm.
Eric Holder, former Deputy Attorney General, also helping with search for a Vice Presidential running mate.
TIM ROEMER, former Congressperson, member 9/11 Commission.
An examination of Obama’s donors found that 21 billionaires have given the maximum amount to his campaign, including Warren Buffett, the world’s richest individual, who is now also an Obama economic adviser, and Bill Gates, the second richest. Billionaire Penny Pritzker of the Hyatt Hotel fortune is Obama’s campaign fundraising chairperson. As of March 1, 2008, Obama had received almost 45 percent of his total primary campaign donations in amounts of $1,000 and over, illustrating the class bias in his campaign funding, since rank and file people generally cannot give such amounts. (This bias is even more evident, however, in the McCain campaign, which has at least 27 billionaires as donors and has collected 57 percent of funds in over $1,000 donations.)
Obama has appointed a new group of top foreign policy advisors, his "Senior Working Group." The 13 members (11 men and 2 women) do not make up an organization for "change." They are a "blue ribbon" establishment group of ruling class leaders who want to advance U.S. world hegemony and multinational corporate power. Nine of these served in high positions in the Clinton administration and four served in the Senate or House as "moderate" or conservative Democrats. Eight are current members of the Council on Foreign Relations (one is a current director of the CFR and another was a CFR member for over 25 years). Obama’s Senior Working Group can best be described as pragmatic neo-liberal imperialists. As Obama has said, "I am not against all wars, I am just against dumb wars," adding that he wanted a "pragmatic" foreign policy different from the "rigid ideology" of the Bush administration.
All of Obama’s top advisers favor "free trade" corporate globalization and resource oriented imperialism, the consensus view of the U.S. plutocracy. At the top pf the list of Obama’s Senior Working Group (see box) is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who, when asked about United Nations documentation of the deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to U.S. sanctions during the Clinton administration, said: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it." Another on this list is Lee Hamilton, who was co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, another ruling class group, which recommended occupying Iraq until U.S. based multinational oil companies had secured legal access to all of Iraq’s oil fields. A third individual, William Perry, supervised the bombing of Serbia as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.
At about the same time that he was appointing his working group, Obama made a bellicose speech before the right-wing American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). During this speech he clarified what he means by "change" in foreign policy and received ovation after ovation with these and other statements: "The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat…. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…everything. I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel…. If we must use military force, we are more likely to succeed and will have far greater support at home and abroad if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts. That is the change we need in our foreign policy, change that restores American power and influence."
In his all-out support of Israel Obama ignores the widespread collective punishment and repeated injustices that Israel has meted out to Palestinian and Lebanese innocents over many decades. Without even a pretense of being fair or "evenhanded," Obama also made the following statements: "I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security…this starts with ensuring Israel’s qualitative military advantage…. There is no room at the negotiating table for terrorist organizations. This is why I opposed holding elections in 2006 with Hamas on the ballot…. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided."
Another example is his support for Bush’s wiretap bill, which gives retroactive immunity to telecom corporations for their violation of the constitutional rights of a large (but unknown) number of Americans—and at the behest of the Bush administration, allowing the interception of communications between the U.S. and foreign nations for intelligence gathering purposes without a court order, something which was required under the 1978 FISA law. This legislation wiped out about 40 lawsuits that Americans have filed accusing the telecom corporations of conducting surveillance without court orders.
In 2007 and early 2008, Obama strongly opposed Bush’s surveillance program, stating that: "No more illegal wiretapping of American citizens…. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient…. No one should get a free pass to violate the basic civil liberties of the American people—not the president of the United States and not the telecommunications companies that fell in line with his warrantless surveillance program."
On July 9, 2008, Obama cast his vote in the Senate for Bush’s wiretap bill, opening the way for further destruction of our civil liberties. Senator Russ Feingold called this Democratic-supported legislation and Obama’s position a "capitulation" to Bush. There are several other examples including:
favoring private over public campaign finance
voting for a corrupt, anti-environmental, and wasteful farm bill
favoring a continuation of Bush’s failed "faith-based initiative"
waffling on his pledge to end the occupation and withdraw from Iraq (stating that Iraq must be "stable" first, a serious contradiction, since the U.S. occupation is what is destabilizing the country)
not supporting gun control or limits on the death penalty and supporting a conservative white Democrat (John Barrow) over a progressive African-American one (Regina Thomas) in a contested House of Representatives primary in Georgia
Obama’s march to the right has gone so far that he has attracted significant Republican and neo-conservative support, giving rise to the terms Obamacans and Obamacons.
The political prisoner and revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote this summary about the meaning of the Obama candidacy: "Politics is the art of making people believe that they are in power when, in fact, they have none. It is a measure of how dire the hour that they’ve passed the keys of the kingdom to a Black man…. With the nation’s manufacturing base also a thing of history, amid the socioeconomic wreckage of globalization, with foreign affairs in shambles, the rulers reach for a pretty brown face to front for the Empire. ‘Real change that you could believe in’ would be an end to Empire and an end to wars for corporate greed, not just a change in the shade of the political managers. That change, I’m afraid, is still to come."
Already on the right side of the U.S. political spectrum, it would seem that Senator John McCain lacks political space to move to the right. Yet in the past few months, McCain has marched rightward on a large number of key political positions, ending any illusion that McCain is some kind of "maverick" or "independent thinker." Every time the right wing accuses him of being too liberal, McCain collapses like a cheap card table and capitulates.
McCain’s Chief Foreign and Domestic Policy Advisers (June 2008)
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN, McCain’s foreign policy coordinator, a paid lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, Lockheed-Martin, British Petroleum, and others, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
HENRY KISSENGER, former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser and a member and leader of the CFR for over 35 years, head of Kissinger Associates which promotes the interests of multinational corporate clients.
RICHARD ARMITAGE, former Deputy Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of Defense, close ally of "realist" Colin Powell, signed the 1998 Project for a New American Century letter advocating for war on Iraq.
WILLIAM KRISTAL, editor of the Weekly Standard, a right-wing magazine, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century.
ROBERT KAGAN, a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, a leader of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, Senior Fellow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a member of the CFR for 12 years.
STEVEN F. BIEGUN, a vice president of international government affairs for Ford Motor Company and a CFR member for ten years.
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, former Director of the Congressional Budget Office and former CFR Senior Fellow, connected to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, also recently headed CFR’s Center for Geoeconomic Studies. He has been a CFR member for two years.
PETER W. RODMAN, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, for many years a top aide to Henry Kissinger and a CFR member for 25 years.
R. JAMES WOOLSEY, former director of the CIA during the Clinton administration, now a vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, member of the CFR for 34 years..
RICHARD S. WILLIAMSON, served in all three recent Republican administrations as an Ambassador and Special Envoy, partner in the law firm Winston & Strawn, and ten-year member of the CFR.
ERIC BURGESON, lobbyist with Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.
kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard University economist, member of CFR for four years.
John B. Taylor, former Undersecretary of the Treasury, an economist at Stanford University, and a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
McCain at one time argued that lobbyists and special interests were a serious problem and needed to be driven "out of Washington." More recently, however, lobbyists have been brought in to heavily influence his presidential campaign. His current 13 advisers and coordinators (all men) are a mixed group of lobbyists, followers of the "national greatness/global leadership" philosophy, long-time CFR members, think tank scholars, and former government officials in Republican administrations.
There is a sharp "realist" vs. "neo-conservative" split in McCain’s camp, with the neo-cons apparently having the upper hand at the moment. The "realists," people like Henry Kissinger, argue that the U.S. cannot dominate the world single-handedly or without some accommodation to the realities of both domestic and world politics. Many neo-cons, however, assert that U.S. power is vast, its moral authority supreme (McCain has said that the U.S. is the "greatest force for good in human history") and the 21st century should be a Pax Americana with this nation in charge of global destiny.
Eight of McCain’s thirteen advisors, both "realists" and neo-cons, are current CFR members, the same number and percentage as Obama’s Senior Working Group. McCain is a long-time (eleven years) member of the CFR. His advisory group also has five individuals associated with the ultra-imperialist Project for a New American Century and several others were leaders of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq—whereas none of Obama’s advisers were so connected. This illustrates that McCain and those around him are more doctrinaire neo-liberal imperialists, whereas Obama and his advisers are of a more pragmatic bent. Both candidates and advisory groups have the same goal of U.S. world domination, but their tactics differ.
McCain’s march to the right includes voiding the habeas corpus rights of detainees in the "war on terror" and supporting torture. In 2003 McCain critiqued the Bush administration’s policy of indefinite detentions and publicly challenged the Pentagon, specifically Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to resolve the matter by either processing the detainees as "war criminals" or returning them to their home countries for trials. Soon thereafter, McCain added that the detainees "have rights under various human rights declarations," one of which is "the right not to be detained indefinitely." Yet once he became the Republican nominee and was attacked by the right wing, he changed his tune. He called the recent five-to-four U.S. Supreme Court decision on the right of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to challenge their detention in U.S. courts "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."
He made a similar reversal on U.S. torture policy. He originally worked to ban torture and uphold the Geneva Conventions, calling water boarding "torture." Since gaining the nomination, he voted in the Senate with Bush to allow water boarding.
For a long time, McCain was for a federal ban on off-shore oil drilling, but now he says that states’ rights should be supreme on this issue and argues that states should be able to decide for themselves. On the related issue of a windfall profits tax on big oil corporations, as recently as May 2008 McCain said he was opposed to "obscene profits" and would be "glad to look" at a windfall profits tax. Now he says that a main difference he has with Obama is that he would not favor such taxes and Obama would.
Two years ago, the Republican candidate was against an "enforcement only" immigration law, stating that unrealistic laws were unenforceable and a comprehensive immigration reform with work permits and a legal channel for foreign workers to enter the U.S. was needed to help supply businesses with an easily exploitable, low-wage workforce. Now, McCain has dropped his stress on comprehensive reform, arguing instead that a militarized border, labeled "border security," trumps any reform efforts. He even said that he would not vote for a Senate immigration bill that he helped draft.
Like Obama, McCain has switched positions on the wiretap law. When he was a limited government conservative, he argued that Bush was circumventing the law saying, "I don’t think the president has the right to disobey any law." Now, as an aggressive big government right winger, McCain has adopted Bush’s doctrine of "inherent authority," which allows Bush to do whatever he deems necessary during a supposed "wartime."
McCain was, at one time, opposed to a repeal of the estate tax, quoting President Theodore Roosevelt about its necessity, fairness, and utility, arguing that it "should be part of our system of federal taxation." Now McCain calls this tax "one of the most unfair tax laws on the books." McCain also once voted No on Bush’s tax cut giveaways to the rich, now he wants to make the tax cut giveaways permanent.
Both Obama and McCain have essentially the same political views on United States world hegemony and what should be the dominant national narrative on militarism; on the nature of democracy and key class related questions such as the role of government vs. the market; on who the key U.S. allies and enemies are; and on the central role of the ruling class establishment in setting core U.S. foreign and domestic policies.
To focus on just one of these commonalities, in their various speeches and writings over the past year, both candidates have expressed what could be called an "American exceptionalist" view of the nature of the United States and its place in the world, including its military role. McCain expressed this most clearly when he stated in Foreign Affairs: "We are a special nation, the closest thing to a ‘shining city on a hill’ ever to have existed." To achieve victory and "build a peace that will last a century," the Republican candidate wants to increase the number of soldiers in the military by 150,000.
Obama in his own Foreign Affairs article wrote that great U.S. leaders "ensured that America, by deed and example, led and lifted the world." Obama argues that the U.S. "must lead the world," and so needs to "revitalize our military" by expanding troop levels by 92,000. Obama states that he would "not take the military option off the table…not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect our vital interests…beyond self defense in order to provide for the common security…."
In emphatically rejecting his former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s views of the U.S., Obama stated: "I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country…[and any] views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation."
Some of the historical and contemporary facts about the U. S. that both candidates want to ignore include: the theft of land and genocide against Native Americans, which killed million; almost 250 years of kidnapping and enslavement of African people; over 100 years of segregation, terror, and lynching against African Americans and other people of color; over 150 years of imperialistic behavior against other nations, resulting in the deaths of additional millions; almost 200 years of resistance to unions and worker protection organization; continuation of a corrupt political system which lacks such democratic features as proportional representation, instant runoff voting (choice voting), public financing of elections, verifiable (with paper trail) voting machines, and free media for ballot qualified candidates
Instead of accepting a largely false national narrative and the supposed greatness of the capitalist market system, we must argue for a new vision of a good and just society. The core of this vision must recognize that global ecological issues, which are common to all people on this earth, must override outdated notions of nationalism and the unthinking acceptance, even worship, of the values of productivity and profit at the expense of nature. Our collective future as a species demands that we reject geopolitical nationalism, the crackpot realism of past centuries. If we do not reverse global warming there will be no prosperous economy and likely no higher civilization. We now need a politics that stresses quality of life rather than consumerism.
One of our challenges in this election season is to stop the rightward drift of both major party candidates. This can be done if there is a creditable threat from the left, if social movements and left forces organize and act independently of the two corporate ruling class parties. In the longer run, a grand dialogue is needed among all left forces to develop a programmatic alternative to the nationalism, market fundamentalism, and anti-environmentalism that now exists, and to unify around an alternative and build a strong political party of, by, and for the people. Such a party would be able to put people in motion for our common and collective future, rather than the interests of the ruling class and its politicians.
Laurence H. Shoup is an historian and author of the book, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and U.S. Foreign Policy.