Nasty Legacies

It was amusing to see Peter Baker refer to the Democratic Party legislators’ threat to President Obama’s possible “legacy” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), often described in the media as a “free trade” agreement, although Baker here makes it only a “trade: deal” (“A Trade Deal And a Legacy,” New York Times, June 15, 2015). “Legacy” is commonly (but not invariably) used as a purr word, that expresses approval of an act or action (in contrast with a snarl or growl word), something nice one has left to posterity like a gift of property or a beneficially transforming piece of legislation. The commonly used “free trade” is a purr phrase, as we love freedom as opposed to artificial barriers that prevent the movement of goods (“protectionism”), although we believe in protection against the movement of peoples, especially poor peoples, against whom we build walls and man guardian troops, machine guns and dogs.

Actually, we didn’t love free trade for many decades of U.S. history when competitive threats from Britain and other countries were strong and U.S. manufacturers supported protectionism to survive and prosper. But the ideology becomes more active at times when U.S. business is relatively strong and wants to pry open foreign markets. “We” then respond! It has also been pointed out by critics of the TPP that the agreement isn’t mainly about trade but rather is mostly devoted to spelling out investor rights and procedures to overrule national legislative, judicial and traditional obstructions to those rights (24 of 30 chapters). Some of these investor rights, like patents and copyrights, are clearly protectionist, but calling the entire package “free trade” or even just “trade” legislation makes it more salesworthy and the mainstream media help sell it by using this purr language here. In short, this is an undemocratic and regressive enterprise, both in the mode of handling the legislation and in its substance.

It is interesting to see how Obama lines up with the Republicans on TPP. They fight him tooth and nail when he pursues anything serviceable to the great majority, but where the business majority feels strongly on an issue, as with TPP, the Republicans bury the hatchet and Obama has, and welcomes, a political ally! This is also true when he wants to spend taxpayers’ money on arms, Israeli interests, and wars against any demonized foreign menace. This helps explain the ease with which Obama and other U.S. leaders rush so easily into military confrontation—they can count on bipartisanship, as well as support from the military-industrial-complex, AIPAC and the patriotic media.

Getting back to legacies, it is enlightening to see the media swallow the notion that TPP would be an Obama legacy when the majority of his party’s legislators and the general public disapprove of this legislation. The same was true in the case of NAFTA, where Bill Clinton got much credit for his energetic support of “free trade” legislation, passed in 1993 over Democratic Party and general public disapproval. It was thought creditably bold of Clinton to use much of his political capital and log-roll this legislation through over the opposition of his popular base. I recall too that several media pundits called Tony Blair “courageous” for supporting Bush in the invasion of Iraq, over majority opposition in Britain, as well as in violating international law. These cases all show the media’s deeply undemocratic essence, where with lines clearly drawn they will stand up for the corporate and 1 percent agenda and against the desires and interests of the great majority.

What is regarded as a president’s legacy is very much a matter of personal and institutional preferences, although some cases are pretty compelling. Peter Baker’s calling TPP a potential Obama legacy on the front page of the New York Times reflects the fact that the editors approve of TPP, just as they did NAFTA in 1993. For quite a few pundits and Democrats Harry Truman was an admirable figure, notable for his pluck and forthrightness, a kind of model Democrat, but for me and many others his greatest legacy was Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first use of nuclear weapons and the swift killing of 200,000 or more Japanese civilians. That mass killing may also have been a warning to the Soviet Union and a major step in the emergence of the Cold War. Truman’s support of the Greek right wing, his counterinsurgency war there in 1946 and 1947, and successful imposition of a semi-fascist government in Greece was another sicko Truman legacy.

Bill Clinton is also well regarded by many Democrats, and if his wife becomes the next President, he will undoubtedly be a force in her administration. His legacy is exceedingly grim in my view. On the domestic side, while the downward skid of real wages was stemmed in his last three years in office, this was largely based on a soon-to-crumble stock-market bubble, and he did nothing to halt the decline of the union movement. Wages continued to fail to grow with productivity advances, a phenomenon explained in 1996 by Clinton’s Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, without any regrets, as a result of job insecurity and the “traumatized worker.” His Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin led him to put the finishing touches on financial deregulation and terminating Glass-Steagall, thereby helping set the stage for the next bubble and bust. The prison population surged during Clinton’s terms, and his ending of New Deal welfare principles was an economic justice setback from which the very poor suffered. (See Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent, Verso, 2003, chaps 1-3)

Clinton was even worse in his international policy actions. He did not “fail to intervene” in Rwanda to stop the huge massacres there in 1994 (the Clinton, Power, Rice, media propaganda line), his administration supported Kagame’s bloody conquest and fought against interventions to halt the bloodshed because that bloodshed was the collateral damage of a Kagame-Clinton political victory. And shortly thereafter the Clinton administration supported the genocidal Kagame-Museveni invasions of the Congo in 1996 and later with its death toll in the millions. (See Herman and Peterson, Enduring Lies, The Real News Books, 2014). In Iraq, Clinton supported the 1990s sanctions regime, whose genocidal effects caused both Dennis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck to resign from their UN humanitarian jobs in disgust and protest. It was Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who answered the question on CBS of whether she stood by sanctions policies that had killed 500,000 Iraqi children, saying “it was worth it.”

The Clinton administration was the lead engineer of the wars in Yugoslavia, 1991-1999, sabotaging a string of peace agreements from 1992 to 1995 and then carrying out a 78-day bombing war against Yugoslavia in clear violation of the UN Charter. These wars ushered in the key permanent-war-regime conception of “humanitarian intervention” and set the moral and ideological stage for the wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. And while he was warring on Yugoslavia in the alleged interest of halting “ethnic cleansing,” Clinton backed it when carried out by his allies in Croatia (Operation Storm) and in post-bombing-war Kosovo. He also actively supported Turkey in its large-scale ethnic cleansing operations against the Kurds in 1994 and later. (The Clinton gang mobilized Turkey to participate in the bombing war against Serbia while helping fund Turkey’s own larger-scale ethnic cleansing in the same period).

Clinton also deserves very important legacy credit for getting a new Cold War rolling after the ending of the Soviet Union. There was an agreement in 1990 between Gorbachev and Bush-Baker-Genscher that in exchange for the Soviet relinquishment of its occupation and control of East Germany, the West (NATO) would not “take advantage” of this or move “one inch” closer to the Soviet borders. Clinton violated this promise, partly in response to Bob Dole’s 1996 electoral pressure from the right, but also because Clinton wanted more generally to establish his credibility in foreign policy and getting tough with Russia was an easy vehicle. Former U.S. official and noted early Cold Warrior George Kennan called Clinton’s moves a “fateful error” and asserted in the New York Times on February 5, 1997, that “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

All-in-all, these efforts qualify Clinton for ranking as a regressive force at home and a War Criminal First Class abroad.

Obama’s legacy is not as broad-ranging or quite as awful as Bill Clinton’s, but it is not good. His domestic impact has not been great, partly because of his limited efforts and partly because of structural impediments (including Republican Party intransigence and hostility) that limited possible changes. But he has not halted the regressive trend degrading and shrinking the public sector and subordinating everything to market forces. TPP, the Affordable Care Act, and his educational policies all fit this nasty pattern. His failure to reverse the Bush legacy of widened surveillance, Patriot Act encroachments on civil liberties, and his enlargement of attacks on whistleblowers, shocked many of his supporters. He did nothing to stem the steady decline of unions, the continued failure of wages to rise with productivity gains, and the 1 percent’s capture of most of the income gains. TPP will be a further setback to the welfare of the majority. His health care reform, despite the accolades of Paul Krugman and others, is deeply flawed, leaving large numbers uninsured, imposing new medical cost burdens on large numbers with rising co-payments, limited .coverage and access, and dim prospects for the future with private insurers even more firmly entrenched than before (see Trudy Lieberman, “Wrong Prescription? The failed promise of the Affordable Care Act,” Harpers, July 2015.) His education impact, with Arne Duncan helping align him in support of intensified testing, charter schools, and a neglect of public education has been deplorable.

Obama’s foreign policy record has been mixed but on balance bad, as he has largely accommodated to the bipartisan pressures from the MIC, pro-Israel forces and the chauvinistic and war-prone media. His most positive accomplishments were the Cuban recognition and agreement with Iran on the latter’s nuclear policy. The former was offset by an almost simultaneous declaration that Venezuela was a serious national security threat, soon withdrawn but indicative of continued acute hostility to the Maduro government. There is also the continued support of the repressive right wing regime in Honduras, whose support from coup days in 2009 remains a blot on the Obama (and Hillary Clinton) record. The Iran agreement is an administration triumph, even if it follows years of unwarranted hostility and sanctions, and although its durability remains to be seen as his administration continues to denounce Iran even as it tries to avoid a legislative overturn.

On the truly negative side, Obama carried out a war of aggression against Libya and turned it from a relatively prosperous into a failed state in continual turmoil. He has been unable to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, continues to encourage the Syrian conflict, has supported the Saudi war on Yemen, and supports the new military dictatorship in Egypt. While he and Netanyahu dislike one another and Israeli (and U.S.) rightists denounce Obama for abandoning “our ally,” he has not done so, but steadily protects Israeli interests (including unremitting ethnic cleansing) and offers Israel bribes to compensate it for any disagreeable U.S. action (as with the Iran accord).

An important Obama legacy will no doubt be his expansion of drone warfare and asserting the right of the United States to bomb anybody it wants to anywhere on the planet earth, making the world a free fire zone. He is also investing vast sums in upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal, in violation of the 1968 U.S. commitment to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Possibly the most important Obama legacy will be his aggressive renewal of the Cold war and demonization of Putin and Russia. He (or his flunkies) managed the February 2014 coup in Kiev, have declared the Russian response acts of aggression, have armed and encouraged belligerence on the part of all the NATO powers abutting on Russia, and have effectively encouraged the Kiev regime to keep fighting the “terrorists.”

In doing these awful things Obama is reflecting the preferences of the vested interest supporters of the permanent war system, not the public interest, which demands peace and investment in the civil society. Who would have expected the supposed agent of hope and change to be the heir of Henry Jackson, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinzki?

• First published in Z Magazine, September 2015

Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media. Read other articles by Edward.