When a Country Gets Lost — And Finds Its Way Back

Let’s face it. Countries, like individuals, get lost sometimes — really lost, ignoring the maps of morality and civil behavior, bringing shame and disrepute on themselves.

In terms of individuals, good people do weird stuff on occasion: run off, or inexplicably go on a bender, or visit purveyors of easy virtue, or get addicted, or use hate-speech in extremis and so on. Stuff happens.

Nations, too, often take leave of their senses. Crises occur. Citizens get frightened by something and don’t know how to respond. A strong leader comes along and channels that fright, usually aiming it at perceived enemies, real or invented, or at least highly exaggerated.

The powers-that-be love crises and catastrophes; at such nodal points, the public is more malleable, more easily rolled. (See Naomi Klein’s brilliant book “The Shock Doctrine.”)

And when these power-hungry rulers or elites grossly abuse their granted authority, the result often is social chaos, police-state laws, warped or broken economies, and often hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dead and maimed in ill-advised wars of choice.


History is replete with examples of nations, even democratic ones, that go crazy like this for awhile, head off into authoritarian rule, and sometimes even totalitarian control. And it isn’t easy to turn that ship around. Sometimes that reversal can be accomplished by the populace, who wake up to what atrocities are being carried out in their name and throw the bums out at the next election, or by a coup. Sometimes natural death intervenes, making intervention moot. Other times, it takes a village, so to speak: The regional or world community has to act in concert to force a change in behavior by removing the ruling elite from the country in question.

You know what I’m talking about. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe, Amin, George W. Bush.

You may think it’s unfair to throw Dubya into that line-up of political monsters, and I agree that not all miscreants are equal. George W. is no Hitler or Stalin or Idi Amin.

But it’s fair to acknowledge that Bush does deserve to be in that continuum of grossly awful leaders who used and then abused their power and, by so doing, brought their countries to wrack and ruin and to worldwide condemnation and shame. Because Bush was in charge of the world’s most powerful nation on earth, his crimes were magnified in their consequences and in their regional and global social impact, so his place in the pantheon of shame is correct.


So why am I bringing up Bush now, after a democratic election has, as it were, thrown out the bums? Am I being mean-spirited, just beating a dead horse?

Two reasons:

1. Bush will still be president for the next two months. Out of failed ideology and thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence, he has left his successor with an ungodly mess to deal with. But he ain’t through yet. He has concocted, so to speak, a scorched-earth welcome-to-the-White-House for Barack Obama, along with burrowing key political-appointed Bushies into civil-service positions of power in order to gum up the works even more for the incoming administration.

By executive order in the past several months, Bush, for example, has bent all sorts of environmental rules and regulations to give the exploiters and polluters even more leeway to take what they want, including permitting cutting some of the last old-growth forests in Oregon and oil/gas drilling in public lands and immediately adjacent to key National Parks, in particular in Utah. The idea is to get these projects started, with money in the federal pipeline, before Bush leaves office, making it more difficult for the Obama Administration to execute an immediate U-turn.

In addition, Bush has taken many of his mid-level political appointees and placed them under the civil-service umbrella in jobs overseeing energy and science experiments for which they are not trained or have no experience. Being civil service employees makes it virtually impossible for the new president to get rid of them. In effect, they would be moles inside the new government in key positions to harm or hamstring Obama’s environmental policies. Among many others complaining about this last-minute tactic by Bush are scientists, angry that political ideologues with no scientific training will have important input on scientific policy.


2. Many of the authoritarian rules and precedents established during the CheneyBush years are still in place, and could be abused by Obama or presidents who follow him. True, Obama’s transition team has listed 200 of Bush’s executive orders that they will rescind quickly with the stroke of a pen. But some of the larger issues are still hanging out there:

* The overuse of presidential “signing statements” to nullify aspects of laws passed by the Congress, as part of the “unitary executive” theory of government, which theory basically turns the president into a near-dictator;

* The policy of “pre-emptive war,” attacking a country that is not an actual imminent threat to the U.S.;

* The use of torture as official state policy;

* The nullification of the legal concept of habeas corpus from American law, whereby a judge has to certify the legitimacy of an arrest;

* The employment of massive domestic spying on and data mining of American citizens, including eavesdropping without a court warrant on phone conversations, snooping into mail, examining personal computer files without the knowledge of the citizen, etc;

* The throwing of citizens into jail as suspected “terrorists” or “enemy combatants,” with no access to lawyers; etc. etc.

All of these violations of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, in the Patriot Act and elsewhere, have been enacted on a regular basis during the past eight years of CheneyBush. How much of this will be quickly and aggressively reversed by Obama and how much will he keep some of these police-state tactics still in place, just in case he wants to use them?


Which brings us to a key dilemma facing the progressive base of the Democratic Party: After eight years under CheneyBush, during which the U.S. was lost in a dark ideological/corrupt shadow world, President-Elect Obama promises us, finally, the return of light in our politics so that we can find our way back to some higher level of moral/spiritual/social health. He probably won’t take the country as far in that regard as many of us might wish, but his landslide victory did break the back of the CheneyBush HardRight as an all-powerful movement and offers us, yes, hope for significant change and progress in righting many of the wrongs of the past eight years.

As many of us have been saying for months now, if you believe Obama will do, or even can do, all of the many things he’s promised, you’re in for a rude surprise. Obama is not a radical or progressive in how he operates; he’s a pragmatic centrist, with liberal leanings but beholden to many of the same economic and political forces that have great influence in contemporary politics. But he’s an unusually intelligent politician, open to argument and persuasion. That’s why we on the progressive left must speak out forcefully when we see him straying from positions that we think can be most useful in repairing the damage of the past eight years.

So here’s the nub of our current dilemma, much talked about in liberal/progressive circles: How much should we trust Obama to do the right thing and thus hold back our criticisms of his actions and policies during this interregnum before he actually is inaugurated as President and during the first few-months “honeymoon” period? And how much should we start criticizing him now for his sins of omission and commission, especially with regard to his somewhat more hawkish foreign/military policies? (See Jeremy Scahill’s “This Is Change? 20 Hawks, Clintonites and Neocons to Watch for in Obama’s White House.”)


My inclination, given the enormity of the problems facing the new president, is to cut Obama some slack, at least until he takes office and starts messing up. On the other hand, he’s making key decisions now, especially as he fills out his Cabinet and operational staff, and unless progressives take a stand now, it may be too late later.

For instance, as far as we can tell, most of his national-security appointments seem to come from the middle to the middle-right; there is not one true progressive who can balance out the arguments that will be made inside the Cabinet. Not a good sign.

I’ll be interested to hear where you come down on this dilemma. How we act in the next few months may have much to do with how President Obama begins his Administration post-January 20. Join the debate and help “change the world.”

Bernard Weiner has a Ph.D. in government & international relations, and has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers. He can be reached at: crisispapers@comcast.net. Read other articles by Bernard, or visit Bernard's website.

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on November 25th, 2008 at 10:17am #

    by: Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian UK
    A surface mining operation in a Colorado portion of the Green River Formation. (Photo: Ray Ng / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)
    Oil shale mining in Rocky Mountains gets go-ahead. “Midnight regulations” to dismantle safeguards.

    Washington – George Bush is working at a breakneck pace to dismantle at least 10 major environmental safeguards protecting America’s wildlife, national parks and rivers before he leaves office in January.

    With barely 60 days to go until Bush hands over to Barack Obama, his White House is working methodically to weaken or reverse an array of regulations that protect America’s wilderness from logging or mining operations, and compel factory farms to clean up dangerous waste.

    In the latest such move this week, Bush opened up some 800,000 hectares (2m acres) of land in Rocky Mountain states for the development of oil shale, one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet. The law goes into effect on January 17, three days before Obama takes office.

    Bush’s legacy is and always’ will be he and his people the have and have more did there best to bring on the destruction of the human race.

  2. Don Hawkins said on November 25th, 2008 at 10:38am #

    Unless Obama makes some very hard choices and let’s give him a break in his first year don’t worry about change the World as the World are World will do it all bye itself. That oil shale if used will make that a certainty. Fox News just did a report on oil shale like it’s the best thing sense Swiss cheese. It’s almost like there is a big happy group out there who have a need to get there way and forget about human civilization there need is more important. How else do you put it. I like simple sometimes as complex is there little game. Anybody can make something more complex or more violent it takes gut’s to go the other way. The truth the knowledge is not there friend and as we see the last eight years never used. Think about it never used.

  3. bozh said on November 25th, 2008 at 10:47am #

    i’m not at ease saying this, but weiner is simplifying enorm complexities that no single person- or even thousands- can grasp, properly evaluate, and then take proper actions.
    i call this personalization or propagation of a personality cult. if one is given so much space on DV, one cld come up w. at least a few salient facts instead of dwelling on bush, obama.
    i’m hoping that DV wld inform contributors to cease w. describing what stars think; how they’d think or think; what they say they’l do, etc.
    instead, give us facts and not (largely/solely) guesses.
    i hate to mention bush. to me, he was the best person for the uncle (samecons).
    that uncle is “clazy” , is another matter.
    let’s talk ab him? thnx

  4. Max Shields said on November 25th, 2008 at 10:52am #

    Bernard Weiner

    While no doubt you may think your article is a “progressive” stand on our wayward ways, taking a rightish turn from time to time, and then “finding our moral compass and correcting course” (my quotes, paraphasing what I think you’re stating); but I think yours is a mis-reading (or lack thereof) of US history.

    US history is not simply about a right/left but about elite authoritarians that have ALWAYS ruled the US of A. There has been no lapse in this direction since the inception of the “birth” and before beginning with the colonial underpinnings of the UK imperial conquest.

    We must be clear eyed and headed. Less is just a distortion of our historical facts. The U.S. Constitution is a charter for the wealthy elite to rule. It was never meant to be more nor less; and it continues to this day. The Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights were appeasement documents that captured the true nature of democracy but was never intended (nor has it) to be implemented.

    We do not NOW, or EVER have lived in a democracy. We are a republic ruled by power elites who select our candidates and then allow us to pick among their selection. Each is sworn to protect and defend the constitution and the elite who rule.

    US history is replete with the powerful against the people, particularly people of color, women and workers. There have been uprisings at times, but the powers of the press, corportions, judicial system and government have ultimately kept the power elite in control. Those are facts. Yes, there have been struggles and these have yielded some change, but at bottom our government is 1) not democratically organized, 2) money rules 3) US foreign and domestic policies are driven by an imperial agenda. The system only knows this way to function. When it accomodates, it does so only to appease and to always KEEP the power structure and imperialism in tact.

    Our new president will follow those orders. That is the role of the POTUS. It won’t change with Obama, and he demonstrates this with each and every action he takes.

    The federal government was created to concentrate power, while orchestrating a massive empire.

    Keep in mind there is not ONE thing that George W. Bush has done while president that was not done before by other presidents. For example, almost all of the hundreds of wars/occupations this imperial country has been involved with were pre-emptive strikes, rarely instigated by the sovereign (usually small/relatively weaker) nation the US chose to invade. Some have offered a “softer touch” but in the end there are thousands and sometimes millions of death due to US murder squads.

    The real work is local. The power structure must directly confront change. Local politics is amenable to change by the people; IF the people want and are willing to demand change and work for it on a regular basis.

  5. Don Hawkins said on November 25th, 2008 at 10:59am #

    bozh the clazy was very good.

  6. Petronius said on November 25th, 2008 at 11:51am #

    I simply love it when amurrikkan ‘progressives’ talk bad about bush baby, while we had such guys as ole reagan and nixon and so forth…
    and then write about speaking up to obama and giving him a chance
    as if he did not make it quite clear in his books that he is to the right of hillary.

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.

    The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

  7. simon said on November 25th, 2008 at 12:36pm #

    “Which brings us to a key dilemma facing the progressive base of the Democratic Party”

    The Democratic Party doesn’t have a progressive base. It has a warmongering, imperialist, corporatist base — i.e. Fascist — and lots of deluded supporters. That so many people can describe the “price worth paying” party as “progressive” demonstrates that those delusions are hopelessly entrenched.

    Historians will argue about when the mythical “democratic” America was truly dead. Maybe they’ll decide it was when Eisenhower warned of the MIC and nobody (except perhaps JFK) took any notice. Or maybe it died in Dealey Plaza and at the Lorraine Motel.

    The solution to your dilemma? Go on believing whatever you want to believe; but please, leave the World alone.

  8. Max Shields said on November 25th, 2008 at 12:48pm #


    You are right when you call this form of government a “mythical democracy” because it NEVER existed. There has never been more than a right to vote and until the early 20th Century that was denied to most.

    And as I said, the voting process is based on the pre-selected power structure candidates.

    The so-called progressives that keep sucking the air out of our dire need for deep real change are worse than the so-called right-wing elite. It is the very Obama lapdogs who are in the way!!

    Ignore them and their muddled and wishful thinking. There’s work to be done!

  9. Deadbeat said on November 25th, 2008 at 1:31pm #

    It is the very Obama lapdogs who are in the way!!

    The reason why there were so many “Obama lapdogs” is due to the Left’s own inability to build solidarity with the groups who gave Obama much of his support — people of color.

    You are right Max that there is much work to be done the question is implementation. That I do not hear much of that coming from the Left.

  10. Deadbeat said on November 25th, 2008 at 1:42pm #

    The powers-that-be love crises and catastrophes; at such nodal points, the public is more malleable, more easily rolled. (See Naomi Klein’s brilliant book “The Shock Doctrine.”)

    Naomi Klein got lucky. Naomi’s Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine” was not written to inform people of the current economic crisis. The book was written to deflect attention away from the growing inquiries that the War on Iraq may not have been solely about oil. Her book was part of the “progressive” or left-wing antidote for Mersheimer and Walt raising the issue of Zionism’s influence upon American foreign policy.

    Ms. Klein background is as a critique of neo-liberalism based on her experience in Latin American. She used her background to alter the direction of the debate about the war. Now that the economy is melting down her book appear prophetic but that was NOT the intended purpose of her book.

  11. Max Shields said on November 25th, 2008 at 2:31pm #

    Two items Deadbeat:
    1) it is not a “leftist” group that change will come from (though it may be called that by some. Instead it is a movement driven by and awakening and the recognition of solidarity between many at ground level. I would not look to the creation of a Party with it’s hierarchy of “leadership” that mimics the empire’s structure. It will be through self-organization, a vital movement which will ultimately end the empire’s reign.
    2) Naomi Klein did not happen upon the “shock doctrine” through observation but through the words and works of others. She simply re-packaged and connected the dots. It’s a fair analysis, and there is no other spokesperson for it, per se.

    So, her motives can be conjectured, but the point isn’t that she was or was not prophetic, but that the demise of imperialistic capitalism (to paraphrase Marx) seeded in the depths of its project.

    I would suggest looking into a Memorandum E-B34 drafted by a joint planning group to the President (FDR) in 1941 outling the concept of a “Grand Area”. This was the plan drafted before US entry into WWII to control the world’s resources. Or you might want to heed this, Policy Planning Study 23, a top-secret document written in 1948 by George Kennan, the leading architect of the post-WWII world:
    “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our intention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives… We should cease to talk about vague…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day isnot far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

    This is the crux of the power behind the power and it is replete throughout US history.

  12. Garrett said on November 25th, 2008 at 2:57pm #

    “Other times, it takes a village, so to speak: The regional or world community has to act in concert to force a change in behavior by removing the ruling elite from the country in question.”

    And you think that’s what took place on November 4th? Please tell me that you’re kidding.

    Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and their predecessors are marionettes occupying the same stage.

  13. Petronius said on November 25th, 2008 at 5:10pm #

    whot left, beg ur pardon is there ? brecht, das land von mahagonny:
    “oh show us the way to the next little dollar
    oh dont ask why, oh dont ask why
    for we must find the next little dollar

    or if we dont find the next little dollar
    I tell you we must die, I tell you we must die
    I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die”…..

  14. craig said on November 26th, 2008 at 10:54am #

    Off the mark. The point is this: We started out lost. Who said we were ever on the right track? My family has been here since the revolutionary war, fought in every war up to me in Viet Nam and settled every frontier from NY to Illnois to California. The real history is one of blood, sweat, tears and tragedy. I was married to a Jew for 20 years and I am frankly tired of the nonsense jewish intellectuals spout about everything in the world.

    Trust is over. Credibility has to be earned. The social contract has been torn up. I don’t care who you, what credentials you have or or what podium you presume to stand on. The game is up, the players stand naked and exposed. The truth is out. We are tired of talk…bullshit walks…

  15. David said on November 26th, 2008 at 11:03am #

    Complicated, isn’t it?

    Simply, no person or group of persons has the answer(s) to our current dilemmas. Even if someone did have the answer(s), implementing them would be outrageously complex and fraught with peril.

    The best that we can hope for seems to be to muck along as best we can from day to day and hope that we don’t make things worse.

    And we better be very lucky to boot.