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Beware of Groundhog Day: John Pilger how American politics is repeating history

Barack Obama is a politician of a system described by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world".

One of the cleverest films I have seen is Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself stuck in time. At first he deludes himself that the same day and the same people and the same circumstances offer new opportunities. Finally, his naivety and false hope desert him and he realises the truth of his predicament and escapes. Is this a parable for the age of Obama?

Having campaigned with "Change you can believe in", President-elect Barack Obama has named his A-team. They include Hillary Clinton, who voted to attack Iraq without reading the intelligence assessment and has since threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran on behalf of a foreign power, Israel. During his primary campaign, Obama referred repeatedly to Clinton's lies about her political record. When he appointed her secretary of state, he called her "my dear friend".

Obama's slogan is now "continuity". His secretary of defence will be Robert Gates, who serves the lawless, blood-soaked Bush regime as secretary of defence, which means secretary of war. (America last had to defend itself when the British invaded in 1812.) Gates wants no date set for an Iraq withdrawal and "well north of 20,000" troops to be sent to Afghanistan. He also wants America to build a completely new nuclear arsenal, including "tactical" nuclear weapons that blur the distinction with conventional weapons.

Another product of "continuity" is Obama's first choice for CIA chief, John Brennan, who shares responsibility for the systematic kidnapping and torturing of people, known as "extraordinary rendition". Obama has assigned Madeleine Albright to report on how to "strengthen US leadership in responding to genocide". Albright, as secretary of state, was largely responsible for the siege of Iraq in the 1990s, described by the UN's Denis Halliday as genocide.

There is more continuity in Obama's appointment of officials who will deal with the economic piracy that brought down Wall Street and impoverished millions. As in Bill Murray's nightmare, they are the same officials who caused it. For example, Lawrence Summers will run the National Economic Council. As treasury secretary, according to the New York Times, he "championed the law that deregulated derivatives, the . . . instruments - aka toxic assets - that have spread financial losses [and] refused to heed critics who warned of dangers to come".

There is logic here. Contrary to myth, Obama's campaign was funded largely by rapacious capital, such as Citigroup and others responsible for the sub-prime mortgage scandal, whose victims were mostly African Americans and other poor people.

Is this a grand betrayal? Obama has never hidden his record as a man of a system described by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". Obama's dalliance as a soft critic of the disaster in Iraq was in line with most Establishment opinion that it was "dumb". His fans include the war criminals Tony Blair, who has "hailed" his appointments, and Henry Kissin ger, who describes the appointment of Hillary Clinton as "outstanding". One of John McCain's principal advisers, Max Boot, who is on the Republican Party's far right, said: "I am "gobsmacked by these appointments. [They] could just as easily have come from a President McCain."

Obama's victory is historic, not only because he will be the first black president, but because he tapped in to a great popular movement among America's minorities and the young outside the Democratic Party. In 2006 Latinos, the country's largest minority, took America by surprise when they poured into the cities to pro test against George W Bush's draconian immigration laws. They chanted: "Si, se puede!" ("Yes we can!"), a slogan Obama later claimed as his own. His secretary for homeland security is Janet Napolitano who, as governor of Arizona, made her name by stoking hostility against Latino immigrants. She has militarised her state's border with Mexico and supported the building of a hideous wall, similar to the one dividing occupied Palestine.

On election eve, reported Gallup, most Obama supporters were “engaged” but “deeply pessimistic about the country’s future direction”. My guess is that many people knew what was coming, but hoped for the best. In exploiting this hope, Obama has all but neutered the anti-war movement that is historically allied to the Democrats. After all, who can argue with the symbol of the first black president in this country of slavery, regardless of whether he is a warmonger?

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Obama is a "brand" like none other, having won the highest advertising campaign accolade and attracted unprecedented sums of money. The brand will sell for a while. He will close Guantanamo Bay, whose inmates represent less than 1 per cent of America's 27,000 "ghost prisoners". He will continue to make stirring, platitudinous speeches, but the tears will dry as people understand that President Obama is the latest manager of an ideological machine that transcends electoral power. Asked what his supporters would do when reality intruded, Stephen Walt, an Obama adviser, said: "They have nowhere else to go."

Not yet. If there is a happy ending to the Groundhog Day of repeated wars and plunder, it may well be found in the very mass movement whose enthusiasts registered voters and knocked on doors and brought Obama to power. Will they now be satisfied as spectators to the cynicism of "continuity"? In less than three months, millions of angry Americans have been politicised by the spectacle of billions of dollars of handouts to Wall Street as they struggle to save their jobs and homes. It as if seeds have begun to sprout beneath the political snow. And history, like Groundhog Day, can repeat itself.

Few predicted the epoch-making events of the 1960s and the speed with which they happened. As a beneficiary of that time, Obama should know that when the blinkers are removed, anything is possible.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.