Archive for January, 2009

Meet the New Boss?

January 31, 2009

Mark Patterson, until last year a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, has just been named Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s Chief of Staff.

It pains me to point out that this is now the second time in a week that President Obama has violated his own ethics rule against hiring lobbyists, and indeed has placed them in the highest levels of his administration. (The first was William Lynn, the former Raytheon lobbyist who was named to the #2 position in the Defense Department.)

The appointment came with the usual rationale about how knowledgeable Patterson is and how much he’s served his country. And in an attempt to ward off questions about hiring a Wall St. lobbyist to help run the Treasury, it was simultaneously announced that Patterson will be prohibited for the next two years from participating in any decisions related to Goldman Sachs and the specific issues on which he lobbied.


Given that Goldman Sachs is one of the giants of Wall St., such a promise is patently absurd. As journalist Ed Brayton points out, “There is virtually nothing the treasury could do outside of ordering lunch that would not have an impact on [Goldman Sachs’] profits.”

Aside from the nettlesome problem of our new president violating his own ethics pledge twice in his first ten days, there is the serious question of exactly what kind of expertise Mr. Patterson will bring to the Treasury Department, since he was lobbying for exactly the deregulation and bizarre financial instruments that led to our current crisis.

Of course, this puts Mr. Patterson in good company. Because his boss, Treasury Secretary Geithner, is also intimately associated with Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretaries (under Clinton) who both pushed financial deregulation. Rubin (who was named by Ethisphere magazine as one of the “10 most unethical people in business”) was a 26 year vet at Goldman Sachs before Treasury, and after it went back to Goldman Sachs and also Citi-group. Summers is now the head of the White National Economic Council.

And while we have all heard about Mr. Geithner’s small problem paying taxes, the much bigger issue is that the New York Fed, which he ran before being tapped by Obama, hosted the meetings to structure the infamous Wall St. bailout of last fall. (Remember – the one that already sucked up $350 billion, and no one can say exactly where the money went?) As is perhaps needless to say, Goldman Sachs and its principles made out very well during deregulation, and now they’re profiting handsomely from the bailout, thank you very much.

Financial experts have taken a big hit in this financial meltdown – even former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was forced to admit to Congress last fall that the crisis caused him to “discover a flaw in the model that…” (in his mind, anyway) “defines how the world works.” But it shouldn’t take an expert to realize that hiring people who caused the crisis may not be the best way to solve it.

Is it too much to hope they’ve learned something from their mistakes?

(With a tip of the hat to Laura Flanders for her story on Patterson’s appointment.)

Thanking Jon Stewart

January 17, 2009

I’ve had a lot of reasons to thank Jon Stewart and The Daily Show for the past several years, and if you have felt the same, you might want to join me in taking this easy opportunity to do it.

The reason for this specific thank you campaign, organized by Jewish Voices for Peace, is that Jon Stewart is one of the only voices in the media willing to challenge the astoundingly one-sided non-debate about the causes of and solutions for the current Israeli war in Gaza. (The video clip of his show is viewable on the website above.)

Since my commentary last week on the Israeli war in Gaza:

The International Committee of the Red Cross accused the Israeli military of blocking medical attention and aid to severely wounded civilians, including women and children.

Human Rights Watch charged Israel with using white phosphorous (think naplam) against civilians.

The United Nations compound was shelled.

A coalition of nine mainstream Israeli human rights groups called for an immediate cease-fire, immediate relief to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and investigation of war crimes committed by their government and military in Gaza during the past three weeks.

More than 1100 Palestians have now been killed and 5,000 physically wounded, approximately half of them women and children.

Let no one for a second misconstrue anything above as representing support, in any way shape or form, for Hamas’ continued launching of rockets into civilian areas of Israel. I believe, as the Talmud says, “Whoever destroys a single life, destroys the entire world.”

What I can say though – what we must absolutely affirm if we are to survive as a species on this planet – is that no one is ever justified in committing a war crime to stop a war crime. Or, as in this case, committing an exponentially larger war crime, or collection of war crimes, to stop a war crime. And using modern military weapons in a civilian population center, with all the obvious and predictable death and destruction meted out to noncombatants, is by definition a war crime. (As is the embargo Israel has maintained against the Gaza Strip for the past two years – a form of collective punishment – which Nobel Peace Prize Winner Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has characterized as “worse than apartheid.”)

In addition to being both immoral and illegal, such military action is absolutely contrary to Israel’s security interests, as outlined by Israeli peace activist and journalist Uri Avery in his commentary “Israel is Losing this War.”

In a nutshell, picture any of the tens (or more likely) hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have been forced to flee, or were trapped, or who were grievously wounded, or had family members killed, or watched their homes or neighborhoods destroyed as a result of this war. Are these physically and emotionally scarred people likely to become the “partners for peace” Israel claims to want? Or are they more likely to turn into implacable enemies of Israel? And what about the 100 million Arabs in the Middle East, and 1 billion Muslims around the world, who have watched this horror unfold on their TV screens over the past month?

Violence begets violence. Always has, always will.

Of course none of this gave the U.S. Congress so much as a moment’s pause before passing, by close to unanimous vote in each chamber, resolutions giving complete support to anything and everything Israel has done in Gaza. With no mention of Palestinian civilians. And receiving the editorial backing of pretty much the entire mainstream U.S. media.

Which is where our friend Jon Stewart becomes so important. It’s richly ironic that U.S. officials continue to see themselves as “honest brokers” in the Middle East conflict when they are not even able to publicly acknowledge there are two sides in this conflict. Well, at least there’s one person in the media who’s willing to do it, and that’s Jon Stewart. Feel free to give him your thanks.

As of this writing Israel has just declared a temporary cease-fire (in time for Barack Obama’s inauguration), and it appears they and Hamas are closing in on a truce. (Even as the fighting has increased over the past few days. As the Washington Post noted dryly, “In past wars, Israel has intensified its military campaign in the final days and hours before a cease-fire in order to achieve favorable truce terms.”)

Since there is little reason to believe this truce will be any longer-lasting than the previous ones, and none that it will do anything to resolve the underlying conflict, I would also recommend the following two groups as reliable sources of information and action for the future. (Including information and action for the massive aid and reconstruction that is now required in Gaza.)

Jewish Voices for Peace

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

The Silence of Barack Obama

January 8, 2009

I was doing my level best to enjoy the recent holidays, and think about the hopeful prospect of a new year, but the steady barrage of TV, radio and newspaper headlines announcing war in the Middle East made it tough.

Just as disturbing as the violence itself was the eerie quiet that quickly descended around it in the media. There was precious little editorial or commentator protest against the Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip, even though the initial attacks killed more people than had died on any previous day in the long and anguished history of this conflict. And then, as the airstrikes escalated into a full ground assault, the prominence of the headlines and stories actually began to decrease, as if the media were already losing interest.

Of course this relative lack of concern only mirrors the position of official Washington. While it is no surprise to anyone who follows this issue, it was still amazing to observe the steady stream of commentators and Congresspeople ready to justify and support the attacks without hesitation – even John Stewart couldn’t help commenting on this lock-step non-debate. And they all do it in such a matter-of-fact, “move along folks, nothing to see here” manner.

Where was Barack Obama in this crisis? It took digging deep inside a couple newspapers to learn that his position was, essentially, “no comment.”

Why has Barack had nothing to say? His rationale that “we only have one President at a time” is, I’m sorry to have to point out, a ridiculous fig leaf. It didn’t stop him from commenting on the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and it sure hasn’t stopped him from acting plenty Presidential when it comes to publicly fashioning the largest stimulus package in U.S. history, and making very public speeches about the dire consequences should it not pass..

Another rationale I heard is that he doesn’t want to distract from his focus on the economy. But let war flare up in the Middle East, and I guarantee he’ll be distracted.

The mere fact of Obama having nothing definitive to say has been deeply discouraging. I have a poster in my office with a quote from Dr. King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” He may not control the apparatus of government yet, but is it really possible that the incoming leader of the free world has no strong feelings on this, nothing at all he’d like to say?

He doesn’t need to state his views on occupation, mind you, or lay out the ethical limits of self-defense or armed resistance. All he needs to do is utter five short words: “I support an immediate ceasefire.”

Civilians are being killed and wounded in large numbers, as one can predict with 100% accuracy when modern weapons of war are used in a densely populated civilian area – and parts of the Gaza Strip are among the most densely populated in the world. (We hardly even bother to think about it anymore, because they have become so commonplace, but military attacks in or against civilian  areas are a violation of the Geneva Conventions – a war crime – for this very reason.)  Everyone from the highest U.N. officials to Amnesty International, Oxfam and Save the Children is describing a spiraling humanitarian crisis due to the war and the ongoing embargo of Gaza. (Embargoes against civilian populations are also acts of war, as they have been since the days of sieges, and collective punishment is also a violation of the Geneva Conventions.)

Is it not tragically ironic that at the same time the U.S. media was obsessively covering the entrance of President-elect Obama’s daughters into the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., a United Nations school filled with 40 civilians taking shelter was blown up in Gaza?

Obama’s response? “…after January 20th I’ll have plenty to say about it.”

Today the U.N. announced it would suspend further aid to Gaza, following the school incident and the subsequent destruction by Israeli forces of one of its aid shipments. Oxfam reports that civilian ambulances have been shelled and health workers killed.

President-elect Obama may believe he doesn’t have to comment on this crisis because he won’t officially be sworn in for another couple of weeks, but the consequences and repercussions of it are going to be with all of us long after his inauguration. His silence has been clearly noted by Arab and Muslim commentators, and the pre-election hope that this “new face” of America would in and of itself alter our relationship with the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East, is crashing against some very hard rocks right now.
Worse still, it is possible that Obama’s silence signals not simply the reflexive support of Israeli military actions demonstrated by virtually every member of Congress and the Bush Administration, but also his support of the larger war against terrorism – his willingness to go along with the fundamentally war-based policy to confront terrorist threats. Certainly that is how the Israeli actions are justified. And it’s also how increased troop levels in Afghanistan and attacks in Pakistan will be justified.

Predictably, this violence will beget more violence. Trying to stop terrorism with war, as they say, is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. With such a policy both we and the Israelis can fully expect more violence, and more terrorism, in the Middle East and throughout the world.

So I am deeply distressed by Barack Obama’ silence. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, given some of candidate Obama’s statements on the Middle East, or his selection of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, or Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. But like the rest of the world, I am trying to maintain some hope that he will be different, that the “anti-war” candidate will turn out to be, well, anti-war. And all he has to do is say “I support a ceasefire.” Just say you support an end to the killing.

Obama may not be saying much, but his silence is speaking volumes. And my great fear is that what we are now witnessing is not the end of an era, but simply its continuation.