The Struggle for Relevance

Obama, McCain, and Medea Benjamin

There is no shortage of rhetoric in American politics but as for real world consequences it begins to resemble the Bard’s immortal lament: Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

President Barack Obama gave what might have been the most significant speech of his second term, proclaiming the eventual end of the Global War on Terror, over a decade long strategic blunder that should never have happened. Lest we forget, after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan offered to hand over Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda conspirators to an impartial, international tribunal, an offer that was summarily dismissed by then President George W. Bush.

Americans wanted revenge and would settle for nothing short of global war, even if it meant attacking a dysfunctional nation whose government had less to do with the actions of its terrorist inhabitants than our own Central Intelligence Agency, who recruited and armed them during the Afghan-Soviet war. We would have our revenge even if it meant invading and occupying a nation that was, in fact, an enemy of Al Qaeda on manufactured evidence concerning weapons of mass destruction.

The past is forgotten and history rewritten in the nation’s fervor never to admit wrong. We are convinced that the entire world understands our actions as the natural response of an aggrieved nation but there are families in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia who are not persuaded. They will never forget the vengeance we have wrought and so the war continues in perpetuity, propelled by its own volition.

President Obama’s declaration is significant but only if it can be believed. Within a week of his speech, promising a shift in policy on targeted assassinations, a CIA directed drone strike killed a Taliban leader in Pakistan.

Unlike the Bush administration, this president was supposed to understand the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The latter is our sworn enemy. The Taliban is a primitive religious organization like so many others in a dangerous world. As a government, they were brutal and despotic like so many others in under-developed nations. But the Taliban had no interest in geopolitics or international jihad. Before we invaded, the Taliban had tacit American support as the best of bad alternatives to instill order in the Afghan nation.

We were supposed to be negotiating with the Taliban for the end of hostilities in Afghanistan. Clearly, those negotiations have failed. This targeted assassination of a Taliban leader had nothing to do with any threat posed to America or American interests. The threat was to Pakistani institutions, most notably the military. It appears therefore that our use of drones is extended to allies, even allies as unreliable as Pakistan.

Obama promised to curtail the practice, to make it more transparent, subject to legislative review, and to remove the CIA from control. By expanding the use of drones to intervene in the internal affairs of another nation, this action strips the president’s declaration of all meaning.

What then can we expect of his promise to restore civil liberties sacrificed in the name of the War on Terror? What then can we expect of his renewed intent to close the abomination that is Guantanamo Bay?

We begin to wonder if the CIA has gone rogue. We begin to wonder if the president and commander-in-chief is truly in charge of the nation’s foreign policy.

Any impartial observer of American history cannot doubt that our intelligence community has at times betrayed our elected government. Beyond the assassinations that turned the nation’s course on its head, there are the curious affair of the botched Iranian hostage rescue under Jimmy Carter and the subsequent arms for hostages deal that played a critical role in bringing Ronald Reagan to power.

Is it so farfetched to believe that the CIA would have its own agenda? This latest action would seem in direct contradiction to the president’s announced intentions. It is worth emphasizing that removing the CIA from control of the drone program was central to the president’s proposals. It is also worth noting that the CIA was in charge of the spying operation in Libya that cost an esteemed American diplomat his life.

If these musings are correct, how would we know? Would any American president be willing to announce publicly that the CIA is out of control? How would he prove such a charge and what actions could be taken to right the balance? The CIA should be dismantled from the bottom up and rebuilt to its original intent but it has become too powerful to allow that to happen.

His domestic agenda stymied at home by an intransigent congress, the president finds himself waiting for the mid-term elections, hoping for the impossible and struggling to assert his second-term relevance.

Meantime, his former rival in the race for the White House, the man who never saw a war he did not like, Senator John McCain engaged in his own struggle for relevance by starring in a little political theater for the cause of war in beleaguered Syria.

As if we needed a reminder of how many wars we’ve missed by not electing him commander (remember Georgia?), McCain pulls off a virtual bungee jump into Syria for brunch and a photo op with Rebel Commander #9. The aging senator assures us he can tell the good guys from the bad by a simple vetting process.

Remember how adept the McCain bunch was at vetting its vice presidential nominee? It turns out his handlers in this bit of theater were equally adept. One of the men chosen for the senator’s photo op was quickly identified as the photographer for a terrorist group that kidnapped a dozen Lebanese pilgrims. Whether that charge turns out to be true or not, it points out the absurdity of his vetting proposal.

A decidedly under whelmed American media dutifully greeted the returning senator but failed to ask the pressing questions: First, if this was so important, where was Lindsay (i.e., Senator Graham, McCain’s sidekick in virtually all political theater)? Second, does anyone really care?

Why anyone would still listen to a man who has been wrong on every issue of any importance for the last twenty years is beyond understanding. His only claim to validity in recent years is his support of “The Surge” in Iraq but the strategy only worked to the extent it did because we paid our enemies to fight a common enemy; once the payments stopped, they returned to their own interests.

Rounding out our featured trio in the fight for relevance is veteran activist and worthy heroine of the left, co-founder of CODEPINK, Medea Benjamin. I have long admired Benjamin and CODEPINK for their constant presence and principled actions on the streets of protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but when Benjamin chose to heckle the president at the moment when his message was most allied with hers, it looked a little too staged, a little too desperate, as if all that mattered was getting on the nightly news.

Political theater has its time and place but in my humble judgment this was neither. Her explanation after the fact was that she listened carefully to what the president said and found it lacking. He did not promise to begin releasing prisoners from Guantanamo next week as if he could unilaterally take such an action. What nations will take the prisoners? If we sent them to a war zone or a nation prone to torture and brutal oppression, would CODEPINK be pleased?

Obama did not announce that CIA control of the drone program would immediately stop or questionable assassinations would immediately cease and that too was cause for dissatisfaction. To believe that the president could affect these changes immediately is more naivety than I am willing to believe Medea Benjamin possesses.

In the end, as much as I wanted to be with her and to support her action, the most I could muster was empathy.

It is no secret that the left is in decline. Since the gradual and perhaps inevitable disappearance of the Occupy Movement, the culture of principled protest has suffered. Sadly, we are not building a movement at the moment; we are struggling for relevance and ill-timed gestures with an uncertain message will not help.

So where do we stand? Do we crawl back into the cracks and shadows of the counter culture or do we find new ways to affect change?

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no left in American mainstream politics. There is the middle and the right. We can thank Bill Clinton for this state of affairs for it was Clinton who redefined the Democrats to bring in moderate conservatives. Republicans had little choice but to move further to the right.

To my way of thinking, this represents a huge opportunity. Poll after poll tells us the people are moving to the left. The younger the population grows, the more progressive the electorate becomes.

I believe it is critical for the left to mobilize its resources to engage the system directly. That means finding candidates to run for office, finding congressional races that are winnable, and supporting campaigns with time, organization and money.

If we cannot do this, if the best we can do is staged disruption, then we will fall even further into the pit of political irrelevance and the anarchists are right: Tune out, get off the grid, and refuse to participate.

Jack Random is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by Dissident Voice and others. Read other articles by Jack, or visit Jack's website.