A little explanation of Washington's massive financial, political and ideological backing for Israel and its apartheid policies usually helps to illuminate. Yet, even those loosely aware of America's dark hypocrisies on matters of 'freedom and democracy' are often taken aback at the scale of this patron-client enterprise.
Lately, a more particular variation on the question has been posed: will Barack Obama, if elected, bring some of that pressure to bear. The question is usually tinged with a sense of hope. Yet, as we've seen, the signals suggest little room for optimism.
Obama's victory speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), 4 June 2008, was a reaffirmation of where he, and political America at large, stands in relation to Israel:
"Let me be clear..Israel's security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive and that allows them to prosper. But any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided".
Many observers will likely read this as a pragmatic electoral play to the US Zionist constituency: once elected, a less Israel-friendly politics will prevail, with some sort of 'gentle leaning' on Tel Aviv to agree a just settlement for the Palestinians.
The recent dress rehearsal of mass Israeli F-16s adds another dark dimension to where the warmongering policy is situated, vis-a-vis intimidation of Iran and the last manic hours of the Bush presidency. For some liberal analysts, Obama's election is an immediate imperative.
Yet, can we really foresee an Obama White House as the catalyst for meaningful change in the US-Israel relationship? Will his election presage a less indulgent view of Israeli belligerence towards Tehran? On the Palestinian ground, will he advocate for key 'final status' concessions like the removal of all West Bank settlements?
Alas, as the 'undivided Jerusalem' pledge would indicate, the dual-speak of US-Israeli policy would appear to negate such prospects.
Haven't we been here many times before? Here's an informative reminder of Bill Clinton's tenure for those hopeful of an Obama assertiveness once in power:
"Throughout the Arab world, Clinton’s election was heralded. Those who opposed the Iraqi embargo said that Clinton would represent a fresh look at the sanctions. It soon became evident that it was business as usual. Under the Clinton administration, more Iraqis died than in the two military actions by a couple of Bushes. Here we go again. Barack Obama is the posterperson of the left and of those who want to see the Arab world get a fair shake in dealing with Israel. The same statements abound: "He’ll change when he’s in office;" "We know he’s not ideal, but he represents a new look in politics." Many Arab-Americans are putting Obama on a pedestal. Unfortunately, that pedestal has already begun to crumble."
Realistic hope should never be sacrificed to cynical despair. But, as with the 'redemptive' promises of Blair, we should, at least, be alert to how such 'bright new saviours' come to display rapacious capacities for warmongering. Unlike Blair, Obama, of course, opposes the war in Iraq. But he does so not because it's basically immoral and illegal, but because it's fundamentally unwinnable.
The principal home truth for Americans and the world at large is Obama's reassuringly safe pair of hands. His is a candidacy endorsed, financed and lauded by corporate America. Nothing he may do once in office is likely to upset that set of crucial interests. Indeed, as the financial system lurches towards deeper structural crisis, the hegemons of Wall Street appear ready once again for the 'soft' version of world domination. From Clinton to Bush, neo-conman to neo-con man, the political managers of the corporate order know what's expected of them. Mr Obama will be no exception.
Pilger sees the Obama 'coming' as 'Liberalism's last fling' - which reminds one of Gore Vidal on how FDR's 'liberal interventions' once helped save capitalism. Elucidating the stakes for a 'new' Democrat version of capitalist democracy, Pilger offers this sober comparison with Robert Kennedy:
"In the US, where unrelenting propaganda about American democratic uniqueness disguises a corporate system based on extremes of wealth and privilege, liberalism as expressed through the Democratic Party has played a crucial, compliant role."Reviewing his tough words on Latin America, Pilger provides this further reality check on Obama's hawkish tendencies, all in the traditional war-making spirit of past Democrat leaders:
"What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s. By offering a “new”, young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US anti-war and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent."
"The vacuities are familiar. Obama is his echo. Like Kennedy, Obama may well “chart a new direction for America” in specious, media-honed language, but in reality he will secure, like every president, the best damned democracy money can buy."
"It is time the wishful-thinkers grew up politically and debated the world of great power as it is, not as they hope it will be. Like all serious presidential candidates, past and present, Obama is a hawk and an expansionist. He comes from an unbroken Democratic tradition, as the war-making of presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton demonstrates. Obama's difference may be that he feels an even greater need to show how tough he is. However much the colour of his skin draws out both racists and supporters, it is otherwise irrelevant to the great power game. The "truly exciting and historic moment in US history" will only occur when the game itself is challenged."Dogs and tails
Challenging the Israeli game in Palestine, and America's continued participation in it, returns us to the key dynamic shaping the 'special relationship'.
In his latest book, Israel and the Clash of Civilisations (Pluto Press, 2008), Jonathan Cook offers an incisive reading of the US-Israeli dialectic.
Refining the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis of the Jewish lobby's 'tail' wagging the US policy 'dog', and incorporating Chomsky's core views on how US interests remain the predominant factor in US policy-making, Cook argues that the true relationship is actually one of mutual interests and benefits - in effect, the tail and the dog are wagging each other. This, for Cook, is amply illustrated by the common agenda envisaged and cultivated by Israel and the US neo-cons:
"Israel persuaded the US neocons that their respective goals (Israeli regional dominance and US control of oil) were related and compatible ends...Israel's military establishment started developing an ambitious vision of Israel as a small empire in the Middle East more than two decades ago. It then sought a sponsor in Washington to help it realise its vision, and found one in the neocons. The Jewish neocons, many of them already with strong emotional ties to Israel, may have been the most ready to listen to the message coming from Tel Aviv, but that message was persuasive even to the non-Jewish neocons precisely because it placed US interests - especially global domination and control of oil - at the heart of its vision." (pps 90-91.)Cook goes on to detail the antecedents of this evolving relationship, a not always smooth or fluid one - as with certain policy tensions between Carter and Begin in the seventies. Yet, while dynamic, it has always been subject to the basic assumption that Washington would never take serious reprisals for Israel's conduct.
Cook cites, for example, the Johnson administration's hushing-up of the Israeli air force attack on the US spy ship, Liberty, during the 1967 war, killing 34 US sailors. Israeli defiance, even of this kind, could always be tolerated because "on strategic issues Israeli policy was seen in Washington as according with larger US interests." (p 99.)
And, as Cook shows, it's that deep convergence of interests which lies at the heart of the present theatre of conflict in the Middle East. In essence, both the US and Israel are intent on destabilising the Arab world as part of a joint enterprise in regional authority and energy controls. In particular, Washington wants ownership and control of Iraqi oil, allowing it an enhanced position over OPEC, as well as the geopolitical muscle that goes with that military presence. Tel Aviv, in turn, sees its mission to expand into Palestinian land as dependent on its ability to subvert surrounding Arab states. Israeli and US neocon calls to bomb Iran are, thus, of mutual significance.
Again, this agenda has not been without tension. As Cook argues, while "the Israeli-neocon plan for remaking the Middle East was about undermining the oil states", the interests of Big Oil were not necessarily best-served through this strategy of chaos. One broad scenario it fears, notes Cook, is the possibility of a shift from Sunni to Shia majority influence across Iraq and Iran, and with it a displacement of Saudi Arabia as the key OPEC state, a development which many of the major oil businesses oppose given their profit-guaranteed agreements with OPEC countries.
Nonetheless the neocons have, at this late point of the Bush presidency:
"succeeded in setting in motion a process of destabilisation that was providing a taste of what they intended and what Israel want for the region." (p 121.)Whatever the contingencies and unravelling to come for the Middle East, there's a dark truth to Cook's view of how the Israeli-US neo-con project utilises insecurity, provocation and division to pursue their joint interests.
Israel's lockdown of Gaza and enforced separation from the West Bank has been a central part of this agenda, allowing it to use the Occupied Territories as a military and human laboratory for US-Israeli policing of the region.
And, as Obama's reassuring speech to the AIPAC elite suggests, those same strategic fundamentals will continue under a Democrat administration. There may be moderations to the policy with Obama at the desk. But they will be moderate alterations, paying dutiful lip service to Israel's version of a 'two-state solution'.
Never say never, of course. As other international pressures are brought to bear, we're also seeing a qualitative change in public and political perceptions of the issue. With the Hamas-initiated ceasefire, Israel has - again - been put on the back foot, effectively forced to acknowledge the gathering criticism of its occupation and blockade of Gaza. Despite the usual skewed media reports of 'Israeli scepticism' over Hamas's intentions for peace - it is, as always, Israel who will seek to destroy it in order to maintain its military imperatives.
Yet, it's that same intransigence, aggression and compliance in a policy of inhuman expansion which also keeps both Israel and the US on the wrong side of the legal and moral fence. That's what they can never disguise. Ultimately, theirs is a politics of domination and coercion which, as history shows - in South Africa, Vietnam, East Timor and other brutalised places - can't be sustained. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that, in Gramscian terms, the US-Israeli project is in a state of hegemonic crisis, failing in popular legitimacy and international authority.
As the mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust showed, might can never be right, truth can never be suppressed, compliance can never be hidden. There will, in due course, be a rightful, truthful exposure of Palestinian suffering. One ex-Democrat president, Jimmy Carter, has taken a laudable position on expediting the cause. If Obama, while actually in office, was willing to act upon Carter's denunciation of Israel's apartheid policies that day could be much sooner. If only.