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Is Obama redefining the center?

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Navasky on Obama, pt. 2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our interviews with Victor Navasky. The publisher emeritus of The Nation Magazine used to be the editor and publisher of The Nation, now a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and chairman of the Journalism Review. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So in the first segment-interview, we just started laying out the groundwork of what this new center is and how the progressive movement may look at Obama and what he is. You can kind of look at the center in different ways: the center compared to who, as you said in the last interview, and I guess compared to Bush and Cheney there were times recently where Condoleezza Rice was looking like a center. So compared to that is one thing. But the world’s changed in the last few months with the economic crisis, what’s happened in Iraq, and the discreditation of Bush-Cheney. And the election of an African-American showed the American people are ready or really did buy into this idea of fundamental change, and a lot of people voted for that. Does Obama represent, in terms of the post-war history of the United States, anything different in terms of the center of what’s normally be considered the center of the Democratic Party, which is internationally pragmatic foreign policy, more or less foreign policy status quo, that maybe looks for stability rather than war as a first choice, not questioning foreign policy assumptions?

NAVASKY: To me, he does represent something new in American [politics]. The fact that he’s African-American I think is of more than symbolic importance. The fact that his particular heritage is international and multicultural in dimension is of more than symbolic importance because it’s the experience that he’s had, and he’s demonstrated that he can meet the norms of conventional American measures of excellence but not be a prisoner, to me, of them. And his first choice of job as community organizer before he went on the other track, again, I think helped shape him, as well as says where his value system is at. Now, I don’t agree with his policy. Like, I don’t think the idea of getting out of Iraq so you can go into Afghanistan makes any sense whatsoever, and right-left stuff. It’s certainly not on the liberal left, as far as I’m concerned, on the one hand. On the other hand, he intuitively understood that it was wrong for us to go into Iraq.

JAY: But if you read what he said why he was against going into Iraq in 2002-2003 and you compare his speeches to Brent [Scowcroft] and some of the Bush I guys who were against going into Iraq, he was coming from that place. Like, it wasn’t that it was an illegal war; it wasn’t that it was an unjust [war] or there were no weapons of mass destruction; his fundamental argument was it’s going to weaken our ability to project American power in the world. It was very much a Bush I kind of foreign-policy position.

NAVASKY: I think you’d have to do a closer textual analysis to what he said when he first ran for the Senate and what he said in the course of the campaign that I have done. *** So I’ll accept your summary for the purposes of our discussion now, although I got a slightly different feeling when he first became public and when I heard him at the Democratic convention four years ago that, it seemed to me—and when I heard him, by the way, not on the question of the war, but his first day as president, to say, “We’re going to get out of Guantanamo. I’d like to get out tomorrow, but we’re going to do it by the end of the year, and sooner if possible”; switching around the Freedom of Information Act, the presumption of how we run it. He’s done a number of things that to me were, if we were having this conversation 10 years ago, “Are you going to have an African-American president in 10 years who on his first day in office closes down Guantanamo, announces—.” You know. So I think it’s a mistake for the left to say, “This guy, let’s give up on him.” The Nation does these fundraising cruises every year, and we went on it, and the first day, some guy came up and he said, “I expected to be disappointed at the end of a year, but I didn’t think it would take only two days.” And I think his appointments, you know, there’s an argument about those appointments. The people he’s picked wouldn’t be my choices for those jobs. On the other hand, his ability to get them to get certain things through and his approach to the legislature and to McCain and that, that may be part of a great strategy. And this is, you know, a hope, and maybe hope is triumphing over experience in this case. You’re talking to someone who thought Adlai Stevenson was going to be president in 1952. Well, it turns out Adlai Stevenson was not that much different from what Eisenhower ended up doing, and I was wrong about that. And I’ve been wrong about most things ever since. So—.

JAY: If we dig into the speech—and there seems to be a difference between the Obama foreign policy vision and the Obama domestic vision. From my point of view, I see more openings on the domestic side. Just personally, I thought it was excellent that when he said it’s not a question of big or small government; it’s the question “Is government going to actually help working families?” This gives us, actually, a criteria to judge his policies by, ’cause clearly the early bailout to Wall Street was—it’s pretty hard to find out how that helped working families. And the bailout that the Democrats want for the auto sector, it’s pretty hard to see how that helps working families. But he has now set a bar which I think we can judge his economic policy by. And other things about the speech we can get into. Like you, I also found one sentence, that we will restore science to its proper place—very encouraged by that, to even hear someone say that, which is kind of ridiculous that we live in that kind of period. But on the foreign-policy side, I don’t see any questioning of the basic assumptions that have driven foreign policy since Truman.

NAVASKY: Well, all I can say about that is the world’s situation has changed, and not that Obama has any great vision that I’ve heard. And I don’t disagree with you on that, on the one hand. On the other hand, the fact of having an African-American president and an administration which is not against the Kyoto treaty, which is, I would say, well disposed towards the United Nations, rather than regarding it as the sort of enemy that we have to convert and put up with, whose instinct is—I take his, again, opposition to the war in Iraq—whose instinct is not to use it to justify going into places, but to try to use it to have peaceful solutions to difficult international situations—.

JAY: But take the current situation, though.

NAVASKY: Okay. So I take the current situation—.

JAY: Take Gaza and Israel as an example.

NAVASKY: Okay, I’ll take Gaza and Israel. I think George Mitchell is a good appointment. I don’t think Fred Holbrooke [sic] reflects my values as an appointment. He’s a tough negotiator and all of that. So I’m enthusiastic about, on day one, appointing George Mitchell to go in there—and suggesting, by the way, that he is going to be an activist president vis-à-vis his secretary of state, not leaving it to Hillary Clinton to make that announcement, but leaping in there himself. I’m less sanguine about putting Holbrooke in to look over Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially given his statements about Afghanistan during the debates.

JAY: And there’s a New York Times piece today which says that Obama aides are saying that the conversation’s more about war than about development in Afghanistan.

NAVASKY: Yes. Well, I read that piece. But, again, you know, “Obama aides”? You want to know [inaudible]

JAY: Go ahead.

NAVASKY: And just looking at other parts of the world—. I mean, take Venezuela: I haven’t heard from him this ritual Chávez-bashing.

JAY: Though some. There was certainly some.

NAVASKY: Well, it’s not a dominant theme with him. And, yeah, it seems to me that he represents the possibility of change for all of Latin America. I also believe that we could meet again in two years, that things are going to change with Cuba. Now the world situation is changing. Fidel is no longer running the show and all that. But that makes a lot of things possible, and I believe that he is a pragmatist in the good sense of that word, someone who is not going to allow doctrine to inhibit him from dealing with people who have been taught to be anathema to this country.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s dig into people who have been thought to be anathema to the country, and let’s talk more about Israel, Palestine, and the fact that Mitchell’s going to the Middle East. He’s not going to meet with Hamas or Syria, which isn’t a great shock, but it would have been something new. Anyway, please join us for the next segment of our interview with Victor Navasky.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy

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Victor Saul Navasky (born July 5, 1932) is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was editor of The Nation from 1978 until 1995, and its publisher and editorial director 1995 to 2005. In November 2005 he became the publisher emeritus. Before coming to The Nation he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine and wrote a monthly column about the publishing business ("In Cold Print") for the Times Book Review.