03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Reason Obama Isn't Making Much Progress

Almost a year after Barack Obama ascended to the
White House, many of his supporters are bemused. His health care bill is
a hefty improvement but it still won't provide coverage for all
Americans, and may not provide a public alternative to the
over-charging insurance companies - if it passes at all. His
environmental team is vandalizing the vital Copenhagen conference by
saying the US -- the single biggest emitter of warming gases -- will not
sign up to any legally binding restrictions there. He has placed the
deregulation-fanatics who caused the New Depression, like Lawrence
Summers, in charge of the recovery. Despite the real improvements on
Bush -- such as the end of torture, the resumption of stem-cell
research, and opposition to the coup in Honduras -- many people are
asking: why he is delivering so little, so slowly?

pair of seemingly small stories about the forces warping American
politics can help us to answer this question. At first glance, they
will seem like preposterous caricatures, but the facts are plain. The
institutions that are blocking progress on all these issues --
Republicans in the Senate, and the mighty corporate lobbying machine
that bankrolls both parties -- have rallied over the past few months to
defend two causes with very little popular support in the United
States: rape and slavery. No, really. If we begin to explain how this
came to pass, then we might see why the American political system is
malfunctioning so badly, even after a landslide victory for change.

start with rape. This story begins in Iraq in 2003. The private
military contractors sent by the Bush administration to guard the oil
pipelines didn't want to get bogged down in expensive legal cases if
anything went wrong. When it came to Iraqis, the Bush team simply
exempted them from all Iraqi law, in a move so sweeping one Senator
called it "a license to kill." But what about if their employees
attacked each other, or other Americans? The private companies insisted
all their employees sign contracts saying that, whatever happens to
them, they will settle it in in-house, through "arbitration." Why?
While representing the company at a real legal trial costs hundreds of
thousands of dollars, an arbitration panel costs a few thousand. It
saves cash.

This policy came, however, with a different price
tag. According to her later sworn testimony, Jamie Leigh Jones -- a
20-year-old working for the contractor Halliburton/KBR -- was hanging
out with co-workers one night in Iraq when her drink was spiked. When
she woke up, she was haemorraging blood from her vagina and her anus.
Her breast implants were ripped. The damage was so severe she later
needed reconstructive surgery on her genitalia. She surmised she had
been gang-raped by the seven men she had been drinking with. When she
approached Halliburton/KBR, she says they locked her in a metal
container with no food or water for 24 hours. A doctor came to see her
wounds and took DNA evidence, although it was later "lost." A guard
took pity on her and loaned her his cell phone. She called her father,
who called the American embassy -- and only then was she released.

an Iraq that was collapsing all around her, there was no chance of the
Iraqi police investigating. Halliburton/KBR insisted that her contract
required the alleged gang-rape to be addressed by the company's private
arbitration process, forbidding any claim in the American courts. (If
this was how they treated blonde English-speaking American girls, what
did they do if Iraqis said they had been abused?) After Leigh Jones
went public, many other American women came forward to say they had
similar experiences working in Iraq. Her legal team argues the refusal
to allow rape to be pursued through the courts created a climate where
it was more likely to happen.

The Democratic
Senator Al Franken, when he heard about this, was horrified, and tabled
a simple amendment to the law. It demanded that no company that
prevents rape victims from having their day in court should receive
taxpayers' money any more. Rape is rape. A majority of Republicans in
the Senate -- including John McCain -- voted against the amendment. Why?
The private contractors are major donors to the Republican Party, but
the Senators claim this didn't affect their judgment. No -- they said
that Franken's proposal was a "vendetta" against Halliburton/KBR with
"political motives." Franken pointed out any company trying to stop
rape victims getting justice would be treated exactly the same by this
law. The Republicans ignored him. They voted to maintain a system where
some rape is not pursuable in a court of law.

the same time, a group of Democratic senators have tried to amend the
latest customs bill to ensure that nothing produced by slaves should be
sold in the United States. It sounds uncontroversial -- as
uncontroversial as punishing rapists, in fact. Yet corporate lobbyists
are militating behind the scenes to oppose it. As the private
subscription-only newsletter "Inside US Trade" reported: "Business
groups are worried by the potential effects," and a source tells them
there will be, "a push from lobbyists closer to the Finance Committee
mark-up of the bill ... U.S. industry groups and foreign governments [ie
those that use slave labor] could form ad hoc coalitions to help send
a united message." They will fight for their right to use slave labor.

examples are extreme, but they reveal a powerful undertow that is at
work on all political issues (and both main parties) in the United
States. To see how, you have to understand two processes. The first is
the nature of corporate power. Corporations are structured to do one
thing, and one thing only: to maximize profit for their shareholders.
No matter how personally nice or nasty their CEOs are, if they put
anything ahead of profit, they will be sacked, and replaced by somebody
who doesn't. As part of a tightly regulated market, this can be a
useful engine for growth. But if it is not strictly reigned in by the
law and by trade unions, this pressure for profit will extend anywhere
-- from trashing the environment to rape and slavery, as these cases
remind us. The second factor is the nature of the American political
process today. If you want to run for elected office in the US, you
have to raise a fortune from corporations or the super-rich to pay for
TV advertising. So before you can appeal to the voters, you have to
appeal to the corporations. You do this by assuring them you will serve
their interests. Once you are in office, you have to keep pleasing them
at every step, or they won't pay for your re-election campaign. This
two-step overwhelms the positive instincts the individual politicians
may have to do good -- and drags the US government further and further
from the will of the people.

Obama had to climb
through this system, and he is currently imprisoned by it. It explains
his relative failure so far. Health care is proving so hard because the
insurance companies are paying both Republicans and right-wing
Democrats in Senate to thwart any attempt to provide universal
health care coverage. Yes, it would save the 17,000 Americans who die
every year because they lack insurance but it would depress their
profits. Reducing carbon emissions is proving so hard because the oil,
coal and gas companies are paying Senators across the spectrum to crush
any moves to reduce oil, coal and gas use. And on, and on.

far, Obama has tried to co-opt the corporations into his agenda by
ensuring they will profit from any changes, but this inevitably waters
down the proposals, often to the point of uselessness. The cap and
trade legislation before Congress, for example, will barely limit
carbon emissions at all because it has been gutted to please the

He will only achieve significant
progressive change if he reforms the political system itself -- to make
it accountable to the American people, not the corporations. He needs
to change the rules of the game. Ban big business from making political
donations, and replace it with state funding. Shut down the lobbying
industry. Make a big populist speech announcing you are driving the
money-lenders out of the temple of democracy: it'd be surprisingly
popular in a country where people can see they're being ripped off
every day. The alternative is to become rapidly complicit in a system
where defending rape and slavery is seen as just another day's work in
Washington, D.C.


Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here. You can email him at johann -at-

You can watch Johann taking on Hizb ut-Tahrir in a debate on the Islam Channel here.

Johann is also a contributing writer for Slate magazine. To read his latest article for them -- about the loon Ayn Rand -- click here.

You can follow Johann on Twitter at

You can support the Republican pro-rape campaign over at

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