Beyond the Politics of Protest, Beyond the Lesser of Evils

Michael Goldstein

Michael Goldstein
October 07
Michael Goldstein is the author of the book, Return of the Light: A Political Fable in Which the American People Retake Their Country, which sets out a detailed scenario for how we might reverse our course. He blogs occasionally here and in the Huffington Post and works as a mediator and death-penalty appeals lawyer in Northern California. Write Michael at or

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NOVEMBER 1, 2008 1:29AM

Lipstick on a Mainstream Democrat

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Where there is despair, let me sow hope. —Attributed to Saint Francis

Hope without clarity derails effective action as surely as any drug.                            —Anonymous

Of the many harms caused by years of rule by Republican extremists, the most insidious  is that they make mainstream Democrats look good.  We are so eager for relief that we tend to overlook the degree to which Barack Obama, for example, still accepts, in an up-front and almost innocent way, the military interventionism that pervades conventional U.S. policy-making, causing grievous harm to ourselves and others and grossly distorting our priorities. This essay argues for supporting Obama, while recognizing that he is emblematic of a system that  will be reformed significantly only from outside the two-party structure.

A friend calls the stance taken here “emotionally complex.”  Like any challenge to denial and wishful thinking, it causes an unpleasant reduction in hope. Maybe it also triggers a flicker of fear that seeing the truth will so diminish our enthusiasm that we let John McCain win.  Yet it points the way forward, as well.  There is one, and looking towards it with clear eyes provides the best hope, in the long run, for realization of the dreams that the Obama candidacy has kindled.

Obama’s Interventionist Stance

 In the September 26 foreign policy debate, Barack Obama

asserted the need for this country to “maintain . . . its military superiority” and “capacity to project power around the world,” although we have never been threatened with invasion and have no enemies that are not blowback from our past behavior;  

insisted on more of the brutal military action that is turning Afghans and Pakistanis towards the Taliban and Al Qaeda, “so that we can capture and kill bin Laden and crush al Qaeda”;  

added to the drumbeat—chillingly reminiscent of the pre-Iraq-invasion WMD claims—of dubious accusations that the Iranians “have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon”;  this in an environment where both the Bush Administration and Israel threatened military attacks after Tehran made a new diplomatic initiative, and in which the U.S. is already engaging in covert operations against the regime;1

• labeled as “rogue states” Iran and Venezuela, as if throwing this stone from our glass house were not one of our government’s rhetorical tools for justifying its own illegal invasions and interventions, killings of huge numbers of innocent civilians, and the capture, torture, and indefinite imprisonment of foreigners;
 promised to end the war in Iraq—maybe*—three and one-half years after the Democrats received a mandate and  power to do so in the 2006 congressional elections, without a hint of discomfort with his party’s actions to date;2  and

took for granted our need for a half-trillion-dollar military establishment that bleeds the resources we need to build a caring and sustainable society and permits us to wreak havoc elsewhere.

This is the closest thing we have to a peace candidate for President.

I, too, want Barack Obama to win, but I see him in a familiar lesser-of-two-evils light.  Of course less evil is better than more evil, and, after eight years, I am as ready for less as anyone else.  It is as if we have been fed a diet of stone soup, and someone is offering us a breakfast cereal composed of highly processed grains, loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, made multi-colored with chemicals, and preserved with God knows what.  Yes, let’s gratefully take Kellogg’s, and start growing stronger.  But let’s not kid ourselves that we can get healthy on this stuff.

We actually can create a society that fosters peace, social justice, environmental sustainability, and other conditions that are hospitable to the human spirit.  The popular response to Obama’s candidacy, in fact, points the road forward.  But first we must see, soberly, why we have to go beyond pinning our hopes on the progressive election-season rhetoric of mainstream Democrats.

The foreign-policy debate alone was so revealing that it deserves an in-depth analysis, which is where we start.  The possibility that Obama’s aggressive stances are harmless “positioning” to win centrists’ votes is analyzed later in the essay.

Obama, Iraq, and Afghanistan

In the debate Obama strongly opposed the war that the electorate opposes, but not because of the carnage and suffering we are causing.  While John Kerry insisted he could fight the Iraq war better than George Bush, Obama says he could fight the Afghan war better by winding down in Iraq.  He betrays both a belief that military force will resolve a complicated Afghan political situation and his alignment with a superpower’s ethic of intervening elsewhere when and how it wishes.  Thus, he would extend a bipartisan series of policies that have caused enormous death, suffering, dislocation of populations, and destruction in Afghanistan for 30 years, all for strategic reasons that have left the Afghans themselves out of the equation.

Obama ignores some inconvenient history.  We indirectly brought the Taliban to power, through covert actions starting under the Jimmy Carter Administration. We helped create groups of anti-Soviet Mujahedin, some members of which later became the Taliban and some of whom became warring drug lords.  The drug lords’ effect on the countryside eventually made the Taliban a welcome force for restoring security and morality.  Under Bill Clinton, we quietly supported the new Taliban regime.  This was while Unocal worked with it—and provided $15–20 million in technical aid and equipment—in the hopes of establishing a pipeline through the country, one that would move oil from large Caspian reserves to the Pakistani coast.  The Clinton Administration thought the pipeline deal would bolster the U.S. strategically vis-a-vis the Soviets, Iran, and China.

When American feminists made a serious issue of this, it then became expedient to oppose the Taliban government (still under Clinton), so that a better-looking pipeline partner could be found.  Bush took that opposition to its logical extreme with the post-September-11 bombardment of the country and renewed support for the drug lords of the Northern Alliance.  We, then installed a new government under ex-Unocal executive Hamid Karzai.

As in Iraq, however, regime change was not like changing a light bulb.  Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghans outside of Kabul have again faced every manner of violence, exploitation, and oppression by private armies.  So the current ghastly chaos, which includes the activities of not only al Qaeda, whom Obama thinks we can “crush” if we only we subject the countryside to enough bombing, raiding, and shooting, but a resurgent Taliban and elements of the Northern Alliance gangs, is largely a product of a long series of American interventions.3

Trying to “crush” al Qaeda feeds it, because there is no such thing as surgical military action where ordinary people live and work.  (So far we have bombed four Afghan wedding parties.)  We have seen this in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan itself, just as many Israelis have recognized it in the West Bank and Gaza.  Dropping high explosives from the sky and using frightened, dehumanized, and angry infantry to blow up or shoot “suspected insurgents” create unimaginable numbers of burned, bereaved, grievously maimed, and orphaned human beings.  These are people who look different from us but who want nothing more out of life than you and I do.

When we are the agents of such suffering, we are spawning new enemies.  The British Ambassador to Afghanistan recently said that “the military presence is part of the problem, not the solution,” and that sending more troops would have “a perverse effect.”4  Even Karzai has said that the actions of our forces are strengthening the resistance.5

To consider Obama’s approach on its own terms is to assume that it is somehow okay to decide whether and how to continue to contribute to making the home of the Afghan people—and Pakistan as well—a battleground, based only on the perceived interests of Americans.  But even on those terms, it is shocking that he thinks that the law of unintended consequences—demonstrated so starkly in the backfiring of our every intervention in that hapless country—will somehow cease to operate if we now pour into Afghanistan more of what isn’t working.

Targeting Iran

John Kerry distinguished himself from George Bush by saying he would assemble a broader Iraq-occupation coalition.  Asked about the supposed Iranian threat, Obama spoke of assembling a broader anti-Iranian coalition.  He did not mention the deja vu aspect of our being inundated with month after month of misleading propaganda that a weak nation in a strategic area is a grave threat because of its development of weapons of mass destruction.6

This is not a minor thing.  The extremes of the Bush-Cheney group, combined with our own denial, make us forget that the Bill Clinton administration paved the way for the Iraq war.  It gave us eight years of demonizing Saddam Hussein, claiming non-compliance with the U.N. disarmament program for years after compliance began, and using the claim to justify draconian sanctions that were in reality aimed at regime change.7  (Scott Ritter, the career U.S. Marine officer who led the U.N. weapons inspection team, quit in protest when his work, which would have exposed the truth, was blocked by the State Department.8)

Thus the Clinton administration’s actions put Bush in a position where his own claims would be believed and war would be virtually unopposed.

The Clinton sanctions themselves, for those who don’t know or don’t remember, were nothing less than a crime against humanity.  This, too, is pertinent to grasping Obama’s limitations.  While the mainstream media generally let us look the other way, Leslie Stahl asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a May, 1996, 60 Minutes segment, "We have heard that a half million children have died.  I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima.  And—and you know, is the price worth it?"  Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it."  We continued the actions that carried this price for another five years.

The program supposedly allowed necessities to enter the country.  It did not, which is why crises in the sanitation and medical systems took a huge toll on young children.  During its operation, three senior career U.N. executives charged successively with heading it resigned in protest, one after the other.  

Now Obama, like McCain, wants a sanctions program against “rogue state” Iran.  He  repeats the dubious claims of a weapons threat, rather than calling for caution about them, and he says nothing about avoiding causing die-offs of small children.

Are they still cheering him in Berlin?

The Real Threat to Our Security

We are a country that has never had a threat on its actual borders, yet we spend $500 billion annually on a military which has intervened in other countries several dozen times since World War II.[9]  This has never brought us a sense of security, for we have always faced, we were told, a mortal threat.  From 1947 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was “communism.”  When that specter disappeared, it was soon replaced by “terrorism.”  I wonder how it is that neutral Switzerland, or Norway, or Costa Rica have managed to stay safe without a 500-billion-dollar military establishment or 3,700 operationally deployed nuclear weapons.

In justifying his plan to expand the Afghan war, Obama told the debate audience that “Al Qaeda is the greatest threat against the United States.”  This hodge-podge of fanatics is not the greatest threat;  our own government’s policies are.  As Obama himself points out—but only for the purpose of blaming Bush, not drawing appropriate conclusions—al Qaeda has expanded rapidly since we began trying to oppose it militarily.  As explained above, this is because our military interventionism creates the conditions in which those who would harm us multiply.

Parenthetically, as long as we do fuel fanatical opposition, nothing can prevent the occasional terrorist strike.  Like Bush and McCain, Obama likes to speak of “taking out the terrorists.”  But we have the benefit of Israel’s decades of experience seeking safety this way.  It can’t be done.

Finally, maintaining the means to “project power around the world” (Obama) not only causes the havoc that using that power creates.  It also badly distorts our priorities, placing us way below where other developed countries are in areas like health care, public education, a mass-transit infrastructure, an economic safety net, and reducing crime.

Change I can believe in would not ignore this elephant in the foreign-policy and budgetary living rooms.  For we will not have a sense of security until we are no longer governed by politicians who tolerate and fund—and promote the ideology that justifies the existence of—the military-industrial complex that former general Eisenhower warned us about nearly five decades ago.

“But He Needs to Get Elected”

Some people hope, as they hoped with John Kerry, that in his heart Obama knows better but is saying what he needs to say to get elected.  I am not so sure;  he certainly has no record of trying to begin to scale back military spending to what would be needed for legitimate defense of this country.  Moreover, and we need to digress again here, he is as corporate-funded as any candidate before him, so a radical shift in priorities is unlikely.

 Large Number of Small Contributions Mask Corporate Funding

Obama’s success in obtaining small donations obscures the big picture:  “Big Donors Drive Obama’s Money Edge,” as an October 22 Washington Post headline put it.

It is well known that Obama now declines contributions from PACs and federally-registered lobbyists. His campaign accepts—and reportedly solicits—contributions from spouses of lobbyists, including large “bundled” contributions.  As of April, 38 of its fundraisers were lawyers whose firms, were registered lobbyists.  It has reportedly asked at least one lobbyist to organize fundraisers, and it accepts contributions from the executives of the types of large corporations that lobbyists represent (including $627,000 from employees of Goldman Sachs), uses lobbyists as advisors and accepts their networking lists, and funneled money from Obama’s own PAC to politicians in early-voting primary states, many of whom endorsed him.

Obama spokespersons do not deny these facts;  they explain that the candidate’s rejection of lobbyist’s contributions is not in itself a perfect solution but is an important “symbol.”

The no-money-from-PACs-or-lobbyists stance began only after funds from those sources helped make Obama a contender.  A staffer has stated that it was a strategy for portraying strong front-runner Hillary Clinton as more of an insider.[10]

Finally, Obama has not criticized the $112,000,000 that corporations spent sponsoring the two parties’ conventions this year or other “soft money” practices. 

Where "He Needs to Get Elected" Takes Us 

Past and current stances on militarism and a militarized economy aside, corporate funding aside, there is a way that it does not matter that we cannot read whether Obama's mind when he promises more of the same.  In anything but the short term, the “position”-yourself-to-win paradigm is as destructive as the superpower mentality.

The short term does matter, however, and while the two-corporate-party system  is the only game in town, perhaps we need people to play this role.  Interrupting Republican rule—particularly the especially corrupt and right-wing version of Republican rule that we know today—with periods of Democratic control, does keep us going to hell in only a handbasket, rather than on a bus.  But we still end up in hell if we only look at the short term.  Here is why.

First, the short answer to, “He’ll do the right thing when in office” is a question.  When have you seen a politician in office perform better than the promises he or she made when campaigning?

I think these people rationalize, “I can do a lot of good if I have the power that goes with being _____ [e.g., congressperson].”  But people who will win an office at the expense of telling the truth about what they believe will do the same in order to stay in office.  Becoming afraid that the exercise of power will cause its loss, they hold back.  And power which one is afraid to exercise is no power at all.

By pandering to the electorate’s current level of consciousness, which is often abysmally low, they become part of the machinery for maintaining that consciousness.  We end up with a succession of "leaders" who give us our political education by repeating harmful myths that people already believe.  (Are you more influenced by the steady drone of officeholders’ accusations against Iran, or by the quieter investigative reports showing that those whose job it is to know consider the claims false?)  This continual mis-education of the populace is a fundamental flaw in a strategy that hopes for incremental change, before the collapse of our civilization and biosphere, by staying within the two-party game and its assumption that all we can do is give every election our best shot at winning, instead of taking a longer-term view.

Real transformation of our political system will come at the hands of those who see their primary job not as winning this or that office in a particular election.  It will be done by those who choose a long-term strategy of building a new kind of political power by educating our fellow citizens to the true state of affairs in this country and mobilizing them to change it.  The low level of understanding will largely disappear, and—  with it—government by those who rely on it or fear it.

Our Dilemma

Our minds prefer black and white over gray.  But it is possible to see that Barack Obama is far from what we truly need and still do everything each of us is called to do to support his being elected.  He is the best we have this year, maybe the best in some time, and his kind are the best we will have for awhile.

And yet, as long as we accept the Republican/Democratic teeter-totter, between those who openly trust unregulated corporate capitalism and those whose desire to be in power trumps any desire they may have to do what they say they seek power to do, we will reap the consequences.  These are war, corporate plunder, poverty, deeply inadequate protection from the human costs of the economic cycles of capitalism, schools so poor that it can be painful to watch what they do to children, the conditions that give rise to crime, a repressive criminal justice system, grossly inadequate environmental protections, the degradation of our farmland and food supply, scapegoating whatever group is a convenient target, and on and on.

This has been true for decades.  It is only the haze generated by election-year rhetoric and our hopes for ejecting the extremist group represented by the Bush Administration that make us think otherwise.  How many of you were cursing the Democrats as “spineless” until a few months ago?  In reality, since the 2006 elections, there is nothing the Bush Administration has done—immunity for the telecom companies that abetted illegal spying, further losses of civil liberties in the FISA amendments, retaining the Republican-enacted tax cuts for the wealthy, continuing the wars—that the Democratic Congress could not have stopped.

The Way Out

So where does this leave us, and what are the grounds for hope?  It leaves us a choice.  There is the relative comfort of denial, wishful thinking, and hoping that what did not work before will work now, if we give it one more try, with a particularly attractive promisor of “change.”  The alternative is to think very far outside of the box and, in particular for now, outside of the ballot box.  We have to, because electoral laws and the campaign-finance system freeze out alternative candidates and parties.

How have movements to dislodge political rulers who have set up a game that only they can win succeeded?  They work outside of that game’s rules, go directly to the people, and organize and educate, educate and organize.  Eventually there is such a deep, strong, broad, and united movement that either reforms that open up the system come, or the old leaders pull the levers of power but find them no longer connected to a society that responds.  Then new structures emerge.

Creating such a movement requires a new political party, a massive participatory organization far different from either our dominant parties or those that function as vehicles for protest votes.  This is a bigger subject than I can go into here.  But think Civil Rights Movement, magnified a thousand fold.  See it with the aim of not just pressuring government for reforms, but taking it over and making it a true instrument for mobilizing our collective resources in support of our collective values.

This is strong medicine, but when the current political system is so bad that a candidate who excites us is one who beats the drums of war and does not question the size of the military establishment or fundamental assumptions about the uses to which it should be put, strong medicine is needed.  We will take it when a clear vision for why and how to do so is articulated, a group of committed people begins the work, and the conditions are right.

Grounds for Hope

There are surely good reasons for hope.  Even the fact that, at least until now, many people did not vote at all because they already sensed that the system cannot give them what they need under either party is, in a way, positive.  Moreover, the enthusiastic response to Obama’s running a more grass-roots campaign, taking a somewhat higher and more intelligent road in his rhetoric, calling broadly for “change,” and telling us that we—not he—are the force that will bring about change, is an extremely hopeful sign.  The real thing, when we create it, will engage people far more.  And it will feel very good to be a part of it.

History does not stand still.  People are not complacent forever.  We have been complacent here for many reasons:  our conditions are not yet desperate enough;  there is a strong, comprehensive ideology that portrays working politically in new ways as both unnecessary and futile;  those of us who notice that Emperor Obama (or Gore, or Kerry) is wearing old clothes are afraid to say so when our friends get optimistic;  and we have not yet been shown a clear vision around which the beginnings of an effective movement can coalesce.   But it is inevitable that Americans will rediscover what real movements for change are, just as people in so many other parts of the globe have.

In the meantime, I want Obama to be President.  But President Obama will disappoint, just as Speaker Pelosi (“Impeachment is not on the table”) disappoints, just as the entire Democratic Congress disappoints.  Realizing that we are taking aspirin for cancer does not mean we stop taking aspirin, but it opens our minds to looking for something stronger.



Part of this essay was excerpted from the forthcoming book, The End of the Two-Party System.  The author can be reached at


 Substantive Notes

*Obama will not specify the size of the “residual” military presence he believes the U.S. should retain. In an internal paper, the head of the campaign’s Iraq working group suggests, “[T]he U.S. should aim to transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000–80,000 forces) by the end of 2010.” A campaign staffer told the BBC, “He will, of course, not rely upon some plan that he’s crafted as a Presidential candidate,” but adust his plans to the advice he receives when in office. (Sources are cited in endnote 2.)  Return to text. 

**“The U.S. intelligence community . . . thinks that Iran halted an effort to build a nuclear warhead in mid-2003, and the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, which is investigating the program, has found no evidence to date of an active Iranian nuclear-weapons project.”  (Jonathon Landay, “Both McCain, Obama exaggerating Iran's nuclear program,” McClatchy Newspapers, 6/2/08 ;  more sources in endnote 6.)  Return to text.


Notes on Sources

1.  Robin Wright, “Tehran Urges New Round of Talks,” The Washington Post, 5/21/08, p. A9;  Brian Knowlton, “Bush Keeps Up Pressure on Iran,” New York Times, 7/3/08;  Associated Press, “U.N.: Bomb Iran and face Mideast 'ball of fire':  Nuclear agency chief's warning follows Israeli military exercises,” 7/21/08, posted at ;  Seymour Hersh, “Preparing the Battlefield:  The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran, The New Yorker, 10/21/08.

2.  Sources for footnote "*" (on equivocation about Iraq withdrawal), above:  Eli Lake, “Obama Adviser Calls for 60,000-80,000 U.S. Troops To Stay in Iraq Through 2010,” New York Sun, 4/4/08;  George Packer, “Obama’s Iraq Problem,” The New Yorker, 7/7/08 [BBC quote].

3.    Sonali Kolhatkar & James Ingalls,  Bleeding Afghanistan:  Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories Press:  2006);  Ahmed Rashid, Taliban:  Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia  (Yale Univ. Press: 2000) [Unocal spending figure:  p. 171]);  John Pilger, “Hidden Agenda Behind War on Terror,” The Mirror (U.K.), 10/29/01, archived at .

4.  Reported on Democracy Now!, October 2, 2008 (transcript at ).

5.  John Pilger, “Obama, the Prince of Bait and Switch,” New Statesman, 7/24/08, archived at .  According to award-winning journalist Pilger, “The presence and the aggression of foreigners have all but united a resistance that now includes former warlords once on the CIA's payroll.”

6.  Additional sources for the footnote on the weakness of the charges regarding Iran, on page 3, above:  Haaretz Service and Associated Press, “IAEA chief: Iran not close to developing nuclear weapons,” Haaretz [a respected Israeli daily], 10/21/08;  Amy Goodman, “Ex-CIA Operative Accuses Agency of Suppressing Intel on Iran,” Democracy Now!, 7/1/08 (transcript: headlines#8);  Amy Goodman interview with Scott Ritter, Democracy Now!, 10/16/06 (transcript:

7.  Scott Ritter and Seymour Hersh, Iraq Confidential (Nation Books:  2006.)

8.  Ritter and Hersh, op. cit.;  Ritter interview on PBS NewsHour, 8/31/98 (transcript: ).

9.  Richard Grimmett, Instances of Use of United States Forces Abroad, 1798–2004 (Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress:  2004), posted at ;  William Blum, Rogue State:  A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common Courage Press, 3rd ed.:  2005), Ch. 17.

10.  Ken Dilanian, “Obama tied to lobbyists, but boasts of not taking money,” USA Today, 4/15/08;  Matthew Mosk and Sarah Cohen, “Big Donors Drive Obama’s Money Edge,” Washington Post, 10/22/08, p. A01; Alexander Bolton, “Obama’s K Street Project,” The Hill, 3/28/07;  Matthew Cooper, “The Audacity of Hype,” Conde Nast, 9/18/2008;  John Solomon, “Obama PAC Is Active In Key Election States,” Washington Post, 11/26/07, p. A06;  Scott Helman, “PACs and lobbyists aided Obama's rise:  Data contrast with his theme,” Boston Globe, 8/9/07.

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The end of the two party system cannot come soon
enough - we desperately need a vibrant progressive

Thank you for this, it is good reference material.
Exceptional, thoughtful analysis on an, indeed, emotionally complex set of issues.

I also look forward to your book.

I am an Obama supporter, but I recognize that he is, first and foremost, a centrist and that the progressives will be disappointed. I remain ambivalent about the degree of hope his candidacy and hopefully his Presidency will represent.
One thing that I wonder is what has enabled Canada and various Western European countries to have both viable multi-party systems and also social democracies with far better policies and benefits for its citizens than we have. Do they all have parliamentary systems? Is is that they are smaller (including post WWII when Europe was decimated and nearly powerless) and thus have been able to move more nimbly and even radically compared to the US? Did their near-destruction and subsequent 2nd tier status in the 20th ce give them more motivation to change?

IOW, it seems pointless to blame Obama for a system in which no one can get anywhere close to being elected President without the compromises you enumerate. The system, not the person, is the problem. And our system seems inextricably linked to our enormous power as a country. There's too much money and too many powerful people involved in making and spending it for the powers that be to let anyone change the system at that level. True progressives don't make it up the political ladder, or if they start to get close, they get destroyed or killed.

Sometimes I think the greatest hope for the reform of the US would be to sink far below our current level of power in the world, just as the European countries did post-war. Then perhaps we would have not just the motivation to change things, but also the freedom to do so.

I often feel we are constrained by our power in the world like a muscle-bound weightlifter who has lost all flexibility.

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