Paul Street interview: Barack Obama and the 2008 Presidential Election

The American radical historian, journalist and activist Paul Street has been following the career of Barack Obama since his early political life in Chicago.  Street, who has just written a book – endorsed by John Pilger and Noam Chomsky – about the Democratic presidential candidate, talks about the Great Black Hope.


While victory for John McCain on November 4 will surely mean a continuation of the Bush Administration’s destructive foreign policies, many commentators in the mainstream media seem to assume a win for Barack Obama will lead to a substantive change in US actions abroad.  Do you agree?


The changes under Obama would be largely about style and image, not substance.  Obama will put a friendlier and vastly more popular ("Obamania" is quite advanced abroad) face on the American Empire Project. Much of the nation’s foreign policy elite (a significant part of which has joined or supports the Obama campaign) is excited at the prospect of being able to dress America‘s quest for global dominance in the supposedly peaceful clothes of Obama.


Obama may have sold himself as a "peace" candidate to the nation’s liberal-Democratic primary voters, but he has made sure to repeatedly remind that elite of his basic commitment to the imperial agenda. He will continue the occupation of Iraq for an indefinite period, escalate U.S. assaults on Afghanistan and Pakistan, reflexively defend Israel’s oppression of Palestine, continue the United States’ provocation of Russia, oppose independent and left nationalism in Latin America,  and possibly assault Iran.  All of this and more is clear from his numerous foreign policy statements to date, including his claim that "the Surge" in Iraq has "succeeded beyond our wildest imagination", his insistence that "all options" (including nuclear attack) are "on the table" when it comes to Iran, his repeated call for increased commitment to George Bush’s "good" and "proper" war on Afghanistan, and his call (last year) for incursions into Pakistan.


Obama has never criticized the brazenly petro-imperialist, mass-murderous Iraq occupation on moral or legal grounds.  He claims that the U.S. invaded out of the "best of [democratic] intentions" and even that we are "spending billions each month re-building Iraq" (he tells voters the U.S. should "stop" that altruistic project and "start re-building America"). A committed "American exceptionalist," he recently told CNN that the U.S. has done nothing for which it should apologize for in terms of its foreign policy because "we [the U.S.] are a force for good in the world."


In the summer of 2007, Obama published an article in the establishment Council of Foreign Relations journal foreign Affairs.  In this essay he said, "The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew."  Obama argued that "we must not rule out using military force" in pursuit of "our vital interests…A strong military," Obama wrote, "is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace." We must "revitalize our military" to foster "peace," he argued, echoing Orwell, partly by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines.


Obama gave reasons to expect future unilateral and "preemptive" wars and occupations carried out in the name of the "war on terror" by an Obama White House. "We must retain the capacity to swiftly defeat any conventional threat to our country and our vital interests," Obama pronounced.  "But we must also become better prepared to put boots on the ground." Reassuring the more militarist segments of the U.S. power elite that he would not be hamstrung by international law and civilized norms when "our vital interests" (translation: other peoples’ oil resources) are "at stake". Obama added that "I will not hesitate to use force unilaterally, if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests…We must consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense…to provide for the common security that underpins global stability." Obama wins accolades from American neoconservatives like Robert Kagan (a leading McCain advisor) for such language.


I should add, however, that John McCain is a viciously stupid and impulsive man who would be more likely than Obama to attack Iran and escalate conflict with nuclear Russia and China.  McCain is an arch-militarist hot-head – a real loose cannon.  During the U.S. presidential campaign all "viable" candidates have to talk like they’d be ready to blow up the world at the drop of a hat.  McCain might actually do it. He may actually be more dangerous than George W. Bush.


What do you make of Obama’s domestic policies?


Alexander Cockburn recently described Obama as "Wall Street’s errand boy." That’s exactly right by my estimation. Obama’s recent willingness to carry the water for the Paulsen-Bernanke-Bush Wall Street bailout plan says it all: $700 billion of corporate welfare to the very parasitic firms that created the current financial crisis in the first place and with no meaningful relief and assistance to debt-ridden homeowners and working people. In 2005, the "former civil rights lawyer" Obama voted to make it more difficult for ordinary Americans to recover proper damages in court from misbehaving corporations.  Earlier this year he voted for expanded federal wiretapping powers (under the Patriot Act) with retroactive legal immunity for big telecommunications corporations who helped George W. Bush spy on Americans after 9/11. Not just Dennis Kucinich but John Edwards and even Hillary Clinton ran to Obama’s left on domestic policy (especially health care and homeowner relief) during the primary campaign. 


I talk about all this and connect it to Obama’s remarkable corporate financial sponsorship (including $24 million from the U.S. finance, insurance, and real estate industries through August of 2008) in the first chapter of my book, titled "Obama’s ‘Dollar Value’". Obama has floated to national prominence on a remarkable sea of Wall Street cash.  He is much closer to the Goldman Sachs/Citigroup/Morgan Stanley crowd than McCain.


That crowd does not write big checks for anti-establishment revolutionaries. It sees Obama as someone they can trust not to rock the boat with "starry-eyed" ideas about social justice.


Again, however, McCain is worse.  He will continue Bush’s tax cuts for Americans who "earn" $200,000 or more each year (Obama won’t), pursue the privatization of Social Security (Obama probably wouldn’t), tax people’s employment-based health care benefits as "income" (hoping to force them into the insurance market beyond the workplace), and appoint enemies of abortion and civil rights to federal courts. 


US dissident Noam Chomsky has consistently pointed to opinion polls which show a large majority of Americans consider presidential elections a farcical game played by rich contributors, party managers, and the PR industry.  What steps do you think could be taken to improve the American political system?


Astute commentators since at least the Progressive Age (1890-1914) have noted that campaigns market U.S. candidates like they sell cars, candy, and toothpaste. Both of the presidential candidates and parties are well to the right of the populace on basic foreign and domestic policy issues. Here are some remedies proposed in my book: full public financing of U.S. elections; proportional representation in the election of state and congressional representatives; free media time for candidates; sharp restriction on corporate lobbying; restrictions on the right of corporations to draft laws governing their own industries; break up the corporate media monopoly; encourage public and alternative media…I could go on. These are all good things to advocate but the ultimate problem is the underlying contradiction between capitalism (with its inherent tendencies towards the ever-greater concentration of wealth and power) and democracy.  As Chomsky says in his book Failed States (2006), "reforms will not suffice."



Paul Street’s Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics is published by Paradigm Publishers, available from


*An edited version of this interview recently appeared in the Morning Star

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