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10/07/2010 03:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Only the mood music has changed": Tariq Ali on Obama's presidency


Is president Barack Obama the change America has been waiting for or is he another corporate Democrat representing elite interests? According to Tariq Ali, very little has chanced between Obama and former president George W. Bush. In his latest book "The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad," Ali argues that Obama is carrying on the reckless policies of the Bush regime. If Obama continues down this path, the Democratic Party not only face the prospect of the House & Senate in 2010 but also the presidency in 2012. This should be a cause for concern.

I caught up with Ali during his American book tour and here's what he had to say about the Obama presidency.

What do you think are the biggest myths that are being perpetrated about Barack Obama as a president and his policy making?

The myths being perpetrated about him by his enemies are that everything he has done has been incredibly radical. The myths being perpetrated about him by his friends are that this marks a definitive break with Bush-Cheney. Both are wrong. My book stresses the continuities in foreign policy between the Bush and Obama administrations. I argue that all that has changed is the mood music.

This change of mood music is not unimportant because it gets the whole of Europe back on (the U.S.'s) side and some of them were alienated by Bush's disconcerting way of putting it on the line. If he was doing something, he would say "This is how we are going to do it. We are going to take these guys out." Europe found that a bit insensitive whereas Obama coats with it with sugar and honey and does the same thing.

He speaks fine and lofty words but when it comes down to it, the policies are no different. In the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the policies are much more reactionary and worse in the sense that the wars are being escalated.

What was your reaction when Obama spoke in Berlin, Germany prior to his election? There were huge numbers of people who came to see him at Brandenburg Gate. Do most Europeans have a sense of hope with Obama or has that changed?

When the crowds came out in Berlin, it was really a sign of desperation. It was a sign that Europe itself is powerless. It was a sign that they depend totally on the president of the United States. Those demonstrations, curiously enough, were an indication of European civility. But there was also a sense of desperation that at last, we have a new Roman emperor at the White House who looks good, sounds good, and let's hope he is good. That mood has long dissipated.

What was your reaction to Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last year? Would you agree that it set a new tone in terms of engaging the Muslim world? What were the real effects that speech had on the Muslim world?

Well, the real effect was to create an illusion, that perhaps he is different. I wasn't taken in by the speech at all. By that time, we knew what he was up to. I mean it's very different from the way Bush or Cheney spoke but the aims of the exercise were the same: to make sure these people, especially the Egyptian and other Middle Eastern governments, remained on their side while the U.S. carried on with its policies as before. It was nice words in some cases, but in terms of concrete polices there was no change. That is what is most striking about this administration.

What did Obama's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize mean? It seems like they awarded it to him because he wasn't George W. Bush. Why would the Nobel Prize committee do such a thing? How shallow of a decision was this in the first place?

Again, this was a sign of desperation and these old men in Norway who award the prize were just too anxious to express their views that we have a new president in the United States and he's not Bush, so let's go down on our knees before him and that will make him not Bush even more. It was a decision that was strongly attacked in Norway and there were demonstrations against Obama when he arrived. There lots and lots of people in Norway who were incredibly critical of it and the guys who awarded the prize were told so in no uncertain terms.

What did they base their criteria on? He was only in office for a few months. What exactly did that accomplish?

Let us say it was servility. The [Nobel Committee] thought that by giving him the Nobel Peace Prize it would make him peaceful. It was not a smart way of thinking, especially given that most of Europe is against the war in Afghanistan. Whereas the European elites carry on with the war.

Many of Obama's supporters claim democracy is a piecemeal process and it takes years to get meaningful change accomplished. Do you agree that Obama is putting the country on the right path toward better times ahead?

No, I don't. I think the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is deteriorating rapidly and going from bad to worse. Most serious American intelligence people know this and say it. Which is why the military establishment is deeply split on this business. They will try and concoct something together and present it as a huge triumph, just like they're doing in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, they haven't even been able to seriously and effectively divide the population. The bulk of the population remains deeply hostile to the United States and this corrupt elite that runs Afghanistan is seen as the instruments of the United States. The Karzai family is corrupt, the elections are rigged, and they think people don't notice these things but they do.

Obama supporters are not fond of critics deconstructing Obama's policies. Oftentimes his supporters might say, "Well, what do you have to offer?" What does the left have to offer in terms of alternative solutions?

The alternative in Afghanistan is very clear: withdraw all NATO troops without further delay. In Pakistan, it's also very clear: withdraw American troops from the bases they've been provided with and the end the drone attacks that are killing more civilians than anyone else. It's not a big problem. The alternatives at home are to carry through policies that don't favor the corporations but actually help the poor.

You have a situation in the United States where 14-15% of the population is well below the poverty line and 44 million people are out of work. So really, the talk of tax cuts is just obscene. It's not going to change anything fundamentally. You have a very deep and growing class divide in the United States. Sheldon Wolin, political science professor of Princeton University, is now very disparaging about the state of American democracy.

The symbiosis between money and politics has reached such a stage that it is difficult to talk about politicians who are independent of big money. What we have, the form that American democracy has taken on, could now be called the dictatorship of capital.

A common response I hear from Democratic Party enthusiasts is, "If we don't elect Obama, we'll have to deal with John McCain and Sarah Palin." What do activists need to do to connect with people and convince them that it's not electoral politics that will bring meaningful social change?

It's different in different parts of the world. I never give prescriptions to people in different countries. I know it's difficult but I think things need to be done.

For instance, if look at education in America there is an obsession with charter schools. It is leading to a lot of unrest in communities. The mayor of Washington, DC, Adrian Fenty, has been removed because he is an African-American liberal. The new mayor, Vincent Gray, is dismantling public schools and bringing marketing and management values into education.

Diana Ravitch has written a very good book on how this awful neoliberal education system was being imposed by George W. Bush and was not working. Now Obama is carrying on the same policy and making it worse. No one likes this and when some organization takes place in Chicago, parts of the west coast, and most recently in D.C., they vote these people out.

There are some straws in the wind, which point out the direction we should be thinking and moving and it has to be grassroots organizing. That is what needs to be done on issues which concern communities.

Oftentimes people tell me, "You're a purist and mainstream Americans do not support those ideas and solutions" or, "Purist politics and policies only attract others on the fringe-left." What will it take for someone like Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney, Keith Ellison, and other like-minded politicians to finally succeed?

Well, Kucinich caved on Obama's health care bill. All of them caved in Congress. So I think once you are in the Democratic Party, you can be easily arm-twisted out of any radical thoughts. Obama did this with Kucinich and others saying, "My presidency is on the line. What the hell do you think these guys are up to?" So I think organizing has to be done outside this framework and once it reaches a certain level, then people have to contest at local, regional, and national levels. That is the only way forward.

Thank you Tariq.

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