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Ghosts of Clinton’s Past

Obama seems poised to make two wrong turns

BY James Schamus

On the two biggest issues that propelled him to the White House--the economy and the Middle East--Obama is surrounding himself with people whose influence is baleful.

Don’t say you weren’t warned: If President-elect Barack Obama follows through with the initial direction set out by his transition team and senior advisors in key policy areas, the Democratic party will be, understandably, voted out of power within four short years.

Obama has assembled a team of “pragmatists,” “centrists,” “managers” and “deal-makers”–so naturally progressives such as myself are going to grouse. Then again, he never actually promised to pursue any particularly progressive agenda (“change,” “hope” and “fired up” notwithstanding). Our grousing on that score can reasonably be dismissed as classic left-wing kvetching.

So don’t get me wrong–I’m not complaining that Obama is not left-wing enough. Of course he’s going to disappoint his activist base (me included) soon–we who were all too happy to project our hope-filled fantasies on someone not named Clinton, whose running mate (unlike, apparently, Sarah Palin) knows that Africa is a continent and not a country. Please, a moment of profound thanks for his victory.

No, my point is much simpler – and more depressing. Among the many decent, capable and dedicated people Obama is assembling to lead his team are names that should give pause to any American, no matter what his or her political leanings. I’ll limit myself to a couple of examples.

First, let me start with Larry Summers. You probably know him as the guy who got fired as Harvard University’s president after a particularly ugly misogynistic public outburst (this following his ugly attempt to decimate Harvard’s department of African-American Studies). And you probably know that he was a big player in the Clinton administration, along with fellow Obama economics advisor Robert Rubin.

Most Americans have yet to feel even a small fraction of the impact coming from the meltdown of the world financial system. When they do, however, they can blame the machinations of Summers and Rubin, who helped push through the Financial Services Modernization Act – the repeal of Glass-Steagall that opened the doors for the massive criminal plunder of our economy by Wall Street.

Just for fun, check out this passage from Alan Greenspan’s instant comedy classic memoir, The Age of Turbulence, of how he and Larry Summers settled their “turf war” over who would oversee the dismantling of the New Deal banking consumer protections and the end of financial regulations as we knew them.

Check out David McClintick’s superb investigative report in Institutional Investor for a frightening window into what may be in store under Obama-nomics run by the likes of Rubin and Summers.

Second, most Americans know that long-term progress in the Middle East will require America’s commitment to a just and practicable resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict. That’s why we should all be frightened by Dennis Ross’ presence on Obama’s team. Ross, who under Bush I and Clinton helped create the Oslo Accords disaster, is now positioning himself as Obama’s go-to guy for the region. As an example of the kind of double-speak we can expect from this new/old “honest broker” for peace, check out his remarks last week in the Jerusalem Post, in which he cleared up possible misunderstandings about Obama’s commitment to a negotiated settlement in an answer to following question:

Given how Obama said at the AIPAC conference in June that Jerusalem shouldn’t be divided and then said the next day that he wasn’t ruling out shared sovereignty with the Palestinians, how can voters know that he’ll really stand with Israel?

Ross: I am convinced that he will stand by Israel. I am. If I wasn’t convinced of that, I wouldn’t be standing here. Do I think that at the end of the day he will do whatever’s necessary if Israel’s threatened? I do.

You raised the issue of Jerusalem. That was at the AIPAC speech. And what he said, he said the following: “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.” He said the city should never be divided again. And it’s true that in that speech he didn’t make the third point, which is, the final status of the city will be resolved by negotiations. Before the speech he said that, after the speech he said that. The American position has been those three points.

The fact of the matter is, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that the city should not be divided again. That’s also a fact. The position of the United States since Camp David, the position, by the way, adopted in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, signed by [prime minister] Menachem Begin, was that the final status of Jerusalem would be resolved by negotiations. Those are the three points. That’s what his position is.

So, my fellow mortals, let us get this straight. It’s a “fact” that Israel should control of all Jerusalem, but it’s also a fact that the final status of the city will be resolved by negotiations? Okey-dokey – sounds like we’re in for more masterful “negotiating” from the inimitable Mr. Ross, who has been spending his time recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a hard-right think tank whose board includes such fair and balanced types as Richard Perle and Alexander Haig. It’s no wonder Ross titled his memoirs The Missing Peace.

Perhaps, by way of comparison, we should be grateful that the Obama team is reportedly negotiating with Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to stay on to continue his own heck-of-a-job?

One could go on and on–and there will no doubt be plenty of opportunities to continue the kvetching. The fact is Obama is most likely going to hire a lot of great and dedicated people to run his government, people who know a lot more about what they’re doing than armchair pundits and amateur bloggers such as me. But on the two biggest issues that propelled him to the White House–the economy and the Middle East–Obama is surrounding himself with people whose influence is baleful. And that’s putting it mildly. For the sake of a Democratic future, let’s hope they fade out of the team, and soon.

James Schamus is a screenwriter and producer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm), CEO of Focus Features (Motorcycle Diaries, The Pianist), and associate professor at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

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