Acting responsible

by Alexander Cockburn

Connoisseurs of the ritual known as “accepting full responsibility” will surely grade Obama a mere B for his Jan. 7 performance at his White House press conference.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with me,” Obama said, apropos terror’s near Christmas Day miss on Northwest Flight 253. “As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility.”

First strike against Obama’s speechwriter is the weasel use of “ultimately,” not to mention the mawkish use of “solemn.” Second strike is his habitual dive into “systemic failure,” as he termed it earlier in the week. Everyone knows that systemic failure — which Obama has been hawking all week — spells out as “No one is to blame. This is bigger than all of us.” That’s the phrase’s singular beauty.

I give John Brennan low marks, too. “I told the president today I let him down,” said Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, who followed his boss at the press briefing. Okay so far. Exciting, even. In medieval Japan, he would have stuck a sword in his stomach at this point. Not Brennan. “I am the president’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, and I told him I will do better and we will do better as a team.”

The problem with all the gabble about systemic failure and with not making Brennan or at least the head of the US embassy in Lagos resign is that it reminds people that Obama hasn’t got much of a spine; also that systemic failures are impossible to fix within the system’s terms, a judgment wonderfully ratified by Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s insistence Dec. 27 that “the system worked.” America’s defenses against terror fouled up Dec. 25, 2009, for the same reasons they fouled up Sept. 11, 2001, even though the 9-11 attacks were followed by vast bureaucratic upheavals and searching scrutinies of intelligence procedures.

Now Obama is listing the orders he’s issued to improve interagency cooperation: Expand the Watch List, enlarge the overall terror database, train more security personnel at airports. It fulfills the first law of reactive politics: Do something. Issue orders. Look busy. But beyond that, will it stop the next bomber?

Itwas Napolitano herself, formerly governor of Arizona, who said of thewall being built to stop illegal migrants crossing the southern border,“You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at theborder. That’s the way the border works.” By the same token, show me atop red-alert urgent intelligence report, and I’ll show you 100 otherred-alert intelligence reports piled on top of it. Show me the 16agencies that make up the “US Intelligence Community,” plus tacticalmilitary intelligence and security organizations, plus thoseresponsible for security responses to transnational threats includingterrorism, cyber warfare and computer security, narcotics traffickingand international organized crime, and I’ll show you bureaucraticrivalry and confusion, buck-passing, active sabotage of rival agencies,incompetence, sloth and all the sins and inefficiencies familiar toanyone who has ever read a decent work of history about such matters.

Addto all this to the fact that no one “responsible” ever does have to payany sort of price. A lot of people lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001, butso far as I can recall, not one lost his job for letting it happen. Nolives at all were lost Dec. 25, 2009, but no jobs lost either, fromBrennan on down. Maybe there’s progress. The lowly TSA guard who didn’tnotice that man going through the “No Entry” gate to give hisgirlfriend another goodbye kiss at Newark Airport (mass panic, totalshut-down) has been placed on leave.

Nowthere’s an avalanche of punditryabout Britain’s Islamic minority as thepetri dish in which toxic cultures of militant Islam flourish andmultiply. At this rate, they’ll soon be deploying the Delta Force inTower Hamlets, east London, and assassinating imams.

Asnoted here last week, the petri dish for terror is US national policy,abetted by junior partners in the UK, France and Germany: wideningattacks on Afghanistan, an unfolding record of torturing captives todeath since 2001, full support for Israel’s onslaughts on Palestiniansand calculated mass murder. It’s scarcely surprising that we’ve now hadthis terror bid in the new Age of Obama, and a supposed swerve intorationality. The swerve has been the other way and guess what — theMuslim world has noticed.

Whatwords can a radical imam in the UK or Yemen have to offer as incitementto attack America as vividly persuasive as the policies adopted byObama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, expanding the war inAfghanistan, cheerleading for Israel and — it turns out — initiating adirty war in Yemen? When the US Congress on Nov. 4 last year voted 334to 36 to condemn the Goldstone Report for its charge that Israelcommitted war crimes in Gaza, how many young Muslims exclaimed, “Thatdoes it,” and headed for their local Terrorist recruiting office?

Howthe terrorists — al Qaida or some cognate organization — must beexulting! All that has to be done is to get someone on a plane boundfor a US city, with explosive deployed on or in his person. The carrierdoesn’t need even to successfully detonate the bomb, just bediscovered. Result: political hysteria in the US — another savage blowto the aviation industry and tourism here in the Homeland. The latestUS Department of Commerce statistics show a continued drop in foreignvisitors to the US Since 9-11-2001, there’s been a 17 percent decline —60 million tourists. A survey concludes a negative impression of the USis the primary reason for this decline. The wearisome new securityscreenings, with travelers fretting about TSA guards chortling lewdlyover full-body scans, will accelerate that trend.

It’sno solution to requisition bigger and better X-ray machines at pointsof departure and entry, to expand watch lists and computer databases.Obama promised change, in his campaign and in Cairo. So far as theIslamic world is concerned, he’s betrayed that promise. That’s thesystemic failure.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. Copyright 2009