Hope, change and predator drones

This week I’m going to Melbourne for the launch party of the second issue of another literary journal, where I’ll be reading an excerpt from my story ‘Meeting the Colonel’, set in a fictional dictatorship somewhere around the Hindu Kush, in a loosely real maravilloso style. I blush when it read it now, with its awkward narrative structure and thinly veiled polemicising – it’s been two years since I wrote it, and I haven’t been writing fiction for much longer than that. (Does one hate ones old work less with time? I hope so.)

A more serious problem for a politically motivated storyteller is the danger of being overtaken by events; as with fashion, twenty years distance is interesting, two years is merely outdated. Many things have changed. Most significant for the ‘war on terror’ was the regime change in Washington. Obama’s inauguration had a profound symbolic resonance beyond the borders of the USA, as eulogised by reggae singjay Sizzla in Black Man in the White House. Expectations were high around the world that a new, benign American foreign policy would replace the bloodshed and turmoil of the Bush years.

Some of us, disillusioned by other charismatic and supposedly transformational leaders (Tony Blair, in my case) or philosophically predisposed to see the changing of the guard at the top of the capitalo-parliamentarian state apparatus as a charade, did not expect much. But to the starving, a crust is a feast, and after eight years of intransigent climate denial, war crimes, atrocities, profiteering and the privatisation of war, Obama’s emollient rhetoric was music to the ears of many on the Left. Who can blame them? Once installed in office, however, as Guardian columnist Gary Younge noted at the time, ‘the issue is no longer what he is and means, but what he does’. Sarah Palin, of all people, posed the unavoidable question: ‘How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?’

For one thing, vested interests are alive and well, as shown by the vastly watered-down version of healthcare legislation. The institutions of American government and their arcane rules tend towards split-the-difference policymaking, and a certain level of entrenched conservatism. As liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias points out:

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fact that in a unicameral United States of America, we would now have passed both a comprehensive health care reform bill and also the most important piece of environmental legislation in the history of the world.

But the perception of the Obama administration struggling to break the mould is only half-true. In other ways, his rule has exceeded the aggression of the previous one. Unmanned Predator drones have struck rural areas of Pakistan, an American ally, more times in the first year of Obama than in the eight years of Bush (Sanger 2009). It’s worth a look at General Atomics website, which includes the Predator and the Predator B in its list of products – there’s even a brochure you can download. It sounds like dystopian science fiction, but it’s real. Try reading it from the perspective of someone unfortunate enough to happen to live in the Hindu Kush, in daily danger of becoming tomorrow’s next ‘collateral damage’ statistic.

As to Israel–Palestine, the current diplomatic row might seem like a promise of change from the usual fine words and massive military aid to empower the occupation and the apartheid-like treatment of the occupied. But as Tariq Ali (2010) points out:

Obama’s official line towards Israel would be manifest even before he took office. On December 27, 2008, the IDF launched an all-out air and ground assault on the population of Gaza. Bombing, burning, killing continued without interruption for twenty-two days, during which time the President-Elect uttered not a syllable of reproof.

If a restructuring of Middle East policy is in the works, it is not due to benevolence but pragmatism. General Petraeus is the one calling for a strategic adjustment, not on humanitarian grounds of course, but because the one-sided American approach to Israel–Palestine is creating massive bad press in the region that threatens to endanger American hegemony of power.

Ultimately, politicians are self-interested creatures; anyone who puts ethical principles above the search for power, rather than using them as a tool in its service, is weeded out long before a general election. The system of bourgeois democracy has two customers – party donors and voters – and no prizes for guessing which matter more. We should not look to politicians for salvation; they are obstacles to be overcome. As Obama put it (somewhat disingenuously, given that he was in the midst of building a presidential campaign with personality cult features): ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’.

Ali, Tariq 2010 ‘President of Cant’, New Left Review 61.
Sanger, David 2009 ‘Obama Outlines a Vision of Might and Right’, New York Times.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

More by Joshua Mostafa ›

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  1. The culture around war has shifted so much that measures such as targeted killings that once would have been widely seen as abhorrent are now argued as the liberal alternative. They don’t involve carpet bombing, you see, and thus they’re actually quite humanitarian. It’s quite sickening.
    On an entirely different note, if we’re linking to Sizzla, well …http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjBngRNRar4

    1. To think that under Bush, Blair and Howard it seemed things couldn’t get bleaker…

      Josh, do you think a restructuring of Middle East policy is in the works?

      And what and where is this Melbourne launch?

      1. Jacinda, I certainly hope American actions change. This doesn’t necessarily involve policy change – if they just followed through on their declared aims to be a fair broker and work in good faith for a just peace, that would be an enormous improvement.

        The Melbourne launch was for the second issue of “Sketch”, a visual arts and literary journal – went well I thought. Most of my friends are musos, so it was nice to hang out with writers for a change 🙂

  2. Obama is not finished by a long shot. Like Kevin Rudd, he began his term of office in a bipartisan mood,confronted as he was by a crippling financial crisis and wars on two fronts. The spirit of cooperation has gradually worn off in the face of an intransigent Senate (ditto Rudd) determined to oppose change in key areas like health reform.

    The loss in Massachussets was a good thing insofar as it allows Obama to respond to the populist call for him to stop talking and act on things like increased regulation of the finance sector. The kind of stuff the Tea Party movement has been trading on.

    But Obama is,I believe,a principled and determined individual who also understands the political machine well enough to know when it is time for the gloves to come off. Now is that time. The progress of the health bill over the weekend will be a test of his mettle and his strategic reform strategy.

    While it is unlikely Obama will ever seriously challenge the cornerstones of the American capitalist enterprise,it is likely that he will become more aggressive in his will to implement meaningful reform whilst protecting his chances for a second term.

    Real, long term reform will happen in that second term and we should all hope that he wins.The alternative could be that folksy harpy Sarah Palin whose ‘hopey changey’ quip should go down as one of the most cynical, un-American jibes in history and one which speaks volumes for the values of the Republican movement.

    As for Israel,the diplomatic dance will continue, probably without any substantive change, as long as the Jewish lobby hold sways in Washington. All those readers with answers to the problem should direct them to George Mitchell and Rahm Emanuel. Truth is, there is no solution to a problem when both parties define the problem differently. Morality is seldom in the realpolitick toolbox. Unfortunately,the likely prognosis is same,same but different.

  3. I don’t think it’s helpful to confuse the Jewish diaspora with those who support Israel. ‘The Israel lobby’ describes people who have interests in pro-Israel and pro-militaristic strategic goals in the region.

    The reason the Israel lobby is so successful in the US is because Israel is one of America’s best allies – best in the region, though Egypt comes a close second.

  4. I take your point, Jacinda, that distinction does need to be made. Matters of faith and culture are not to be confused with political ambition, though they obviously can and do intersect. Nevertheless, the Jewishness of the Israel lobby is a very prominent feature of its international public relations strategy. For example, criticism of Israel is routinely deflected as anti-semitic. I realise that there are very many people in the disapora and in Israel itself who question Israel’s domestic and foreign policies.

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