Category Archives: Hillary Clinton

David Cameron Makes His Bones in Libya, NeoCon-style

Whenever a national leader justifies aggressive military action against others by invoking the phrase “humanitarian crisis” – as Barack Obama did to explain why a no-fly zone was being imposed on Libya – the most appropriate reaction may not be “to reach for my revolver”, to quote a long-forgotten German playwright, however tempting that might be. But stretching out a hand for a zinc bucket to hurl into sounds like a pretty good alternative.

No fly zone declared


This is not to deny that Libya does indeed face a potential calamity. The embattled Col. Gaddafi, his family, tribe and assorted associates and hangers-on are facing political, financial and possibly physical extinction at the hands of rebels – whose precise political orientation remains a mystery despite a heavy media presence in their strongholds – and clearly they will fight, and fight dirty, to make sure that does not happen.

But this is not the first time that an oppressive regime has threatened its own people, or other countries’ people, with slaughter and that fact serves to highlight the embedded dishonesty and hypocrisy of the joint Obama-Cameron-Sarkozy venture. If the prospect of a “humanitarian crisis” was an honest reason for military intervention then the three national leaders would be pretty much doing nothing else every day except issuing threats or organizing military sorties into other peoples’ countries.

They would be telling the leaders of Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, to lay off their pro-democracy protesters; they’d impose a no-fly zone over Zimbabwe or otherwise threaten to rein in Robert Mugabe, toss Cruise missiles at the Burmese military dictators and long ago have sent legions of the Green Berets, the SAS and the French Foreign Legion into Darfur.

But they didn’t, and they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing it. No more than they would have ordered a no-fly zone in the Middle East in December 2008 when Israel invaded Gaza during Operation Cast Lead and rained white phosphorous

Western silence when Israel rained white phosphorous on Gaza

down on the heads of Palestinian children with murderous consequences for scores. Not only did that not happen but the newly-elected Obama, vacationing in Hawaii at the time, could not be persuaded to utter even one word of condemnation or disapproval.

To be fair to the US president, however, this is one military adventure which the Americans appear to have been the most reluctant to join. The lead has been taken instead by French president, Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister, David Cameron who heads a coalition Tory-Liberal Democrat government in London. The two Europeans had been pressing for action against Gaddafi for more than a week before Obama, apparently also urged to travel down this road by Hillary Clinton, finally gave in.

Sarkozy’s reasons for joining this anti-Gaddafi expedition have, according to one persuasive account, much to do with the confluence of two uncomfortable realities and very little with the catastrophe that inaction could bring to the unfortunate Libyans.

One is the impending French presidential election, due next April or May, and the other is his awful standing in the opinion polls. The latest of these showed

Pandering to Le Pen's National front did Sarkozy little good

him trailing behind the Socialists and the quasi-fascist, anti-immigrant National Front founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen. In a bid to fend off the challenge from the extreme right, Sarkozy last year decided to join Le Pen’s people in the gutter and ordered the expulsion of France’s Roma population.

Pandering to French xenophobia made little difference and now Sarkozy faces the real prospect of entering the history books as a one-term president. But as Margaret Thatcher discovered in the Falklands, as did George W Bush after the invasion of Iraq, nothing does quite as much good for a politician’s re-election prospects – particularly when you’re third in the polls – than a war, especially one your people believe you are leading.

For reasons that perhaps hark back to the days of “Freedom Fries” and the contrast that the sight of a French leader eager to fight a war alongside America

Sarkozy - no more "Freedom Fries"

makes, the US media have placed Sarkozy in the “no-fly zone” limelight. To be sure Sarkozy was the first to give official recognition to the Libyan rebels and French jets did fly the first missions over Benghazi but to focus on this risks missing one of the big stories of the Libyan adventure: the role of neocons in shaping British prime minister David Cameron’s enthusiastic support for the Libyan escapade.

And there is no doubting Cameron’s passion for this North African adventure. He was the first to call for a no-fly zone (as well as the arming of the rebels), in early March well ahead of Sarkozy who initially opposed the idea. Even when NATO turned him down and the Russians and Chinese promised to veto any attempt at the United Nations to dislodge the Libyan leader by force, he

David Cameron with 'neocon Rex' Tony Blair

persisted. When he ducked a question in the House of Commons over whether he would wait for a UN resolution on Libya before committing Britain to a no-fly zone it raised the intriguing possibility that Cameron might be ready to go down the same path traveled by Tony Blair in 2003 when he and Bush cut a secret deal to go to war in Iraq without the UN’s approval.

And Cameron’s ministers have let it slip that, notwithstanding that the terms of the UN resolution do not authorize regime change, getting rid of Gaddafi and even killing him is very high on the British agenda.

His Defence Secretary, Liam Fox let it slip that the Libyan dictator could be targeted by Cruise missiles while his Chancellor, (like Timothy Geithner but with much more clout) George Osborne refused to rule out British troops being deployed on Libyan soil to overthrow him, telling a British television show only

Dave and Barry share a joke - but does Obama really know about his friend's friends?

that it was not planned “at this stage”. Should there be any doubt what the real intentions are, it is worth remembering that it was a British submarine that targeted Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli with a missile strike shortly after the no-fly zone was authorised (the same compound, incidentally, bombed by Reagan in 1986 in a raid that killed Gaddafi’s adopted daughter).

So there seems reason to believe that in Cameron’s mind at least, the Libyan intervention is less a humanitarian intervention intended to relieve the hard-pressed rebels and avoid the slaughter of civilians and more a war whose aim is to overthrow the Gaddafi government and to achieve regime change.

David Cameron, like many British Tories, has some compelling reasons to get rid of Gaddafi although commercial motives such as access to Libyan oil and enhancing trade links are not among them. Cameron’s predecessor, Tony Blair long ago took care of Britain’s interests in that regard, secretly offering in 2005 to hand over Libyan dissidents hiding out in London (yes, the same ones whose friends in Libya the West is now so eager to protect) to Gaddafi and almost certain death (and later freeing the Lockerbie bomber) just at the time that Libyan oilfields were made available for public auction (by a remarkable coincidence by the time the hammer fell, BP and Shell had beaten out their US rivals and secured rights to all of Libya’s oil and natural gas resources).

Another reason could be Gaddafi’s nearly two decade-long sponsorship of the Provisional IRA. Over the years Libya gave the IRA many millions of dollars and tons of sophisticated weaponry, including ample supplies of the powerful explosive Semtex. By so doing the Libyan leader nourished a group that

Gaddafi gave the IRA weapons to use against Britain

otherwise would have posed a much less formidable threat to Britain. Getting payback for all those years spent helping out Irish terrorists who killed the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten and nearly wiped out the Thatcher Cabinet would certainly give Cameron and his colleagues much satisfaction but is insufficient by itself to explain the eagerness to attach Gaddafi’s scalp to their belt.

The clue to what is really going on in the Cameron cabinet can be found in the phrase that many believe describes their real but officially unstated aim: “regime change”. Consider these words to be published in the forthcoming issue of The Weekly Standard: “The only way this crisis will end – the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya – is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won’t suffice. We must make ‘rollback’ the international strategy.”

British neocons want to do this to.........

....this guy

The Weekly Standard is, of course, the house magazine of the American neoconservative movement and the author of these words is the writer and think tanker, Max Boot. Although Boot dislikes the epithet, he is one of America’s foremost neocons. In fact there is hardly a neocon project of any significance in recent years that has not had Max Boot’s name attached to it at some stage or other, from the Project for a New American Century and the invasion of Iraq through to unquestioning fealty to Israel and particularly the Likud party.

And remember also that key defining document produced by American neoconservatism back in 1996, ‘Clean Break’, advice to Israeli’s incoming Likud premier, Benjamin  Netanyahu that a policy which embraced military force to topple unfriendly Arab regimes could ‘transcend’ the Arab-Israeli conflict, i.e. make an accommodation with Palestinians unnecessary. It is view heartily endorsed by the Atlanticists who populate the ranks of Britain’s neocons.

One of the most stubborn popular myths about neoconservatism is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon and given the baleful consequences that the doctrine had for the Bush White House, never mind the rest of the world, that is hardly surprising.

But neoconservatism’s roots do not belong in America and not even in the West Side of Manhattan, at least according to some in Cameron’s circle. The roots actually belong in Britain and, according to one of the doctrine’s leading

The Earl of Castlereagh - a founder of modern neoconservatism?

apostles, specifically in the British Tory party at the dawn of the nineteenth century when the doctrine of intervention in other countries’ affairs was legitimized, beginning with the effort to throw Napoleon off France’s imperial throne, and the basis laid for largely unopposed British colonial expansion during the rest of the century.

The claim, incidentally, is a necessary reminder that neoconservatism is just a fancy name for old-fashioned, interest-driven imperialism, justified in the nineteenth century in the name of bringing “civilization” to the rest of the world and nowadays to spread “democracy”.

Well, it looks as if Britain’s nineteenth century neocons have made a comeback and have a real, pivotal influence in Cameron’s Cabinet. The prime minister himself is not formally a neocon but he has surrounded himself with neocons,  given them key posts in government and has allowed his policies to be framed with significant input from neocon think tanks.

Consider the openly neocon members of Cameron’s Cabinet, nearly all of them members of the so-called Notting Hill set, a group of young ambitious Tories

Goerge Osborne as a young buck at Oxford - never had a proper job before politics

who spearheaded Cameron’s rise to the top of the Tory party. The leading figure is George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer whose economic policies will determine whether or not Cameron gets re-elected in 2014 or 2015. He is a crucial figure in Cameron’s government and has the prime minister’s ear every day. Back in 2003 when Bush and Blair were about to invade Iraq, Osborne – a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy – declared himself a “signed-up, card-carrying Bush fan” and told the House of Commons that he had been won over by the “excellent neoconservative case” for war.

The next most important figure is Cameron’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove who, when he is not advocating no fly zones in Libya, is busy constructing Britain’s version of charter schools. A former leader writer for the Times, Gove is the zealot who traces the origins of

Michael Gove - a key member of Cameron's 'Notting Hill set'

neoconservatism to a couple of early nineteenth century Tory Foreign Secretaries, George Canning and Robert Stewart, aka Viscount Castlereagh. An uncritical fan of Israel who barely bothers to disguise his contempt for all things Palestinian and Arab, Gove once compared Donald Rumsfeld to the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in High Noon.

More junior Tories make up the rest of Cameron’s neocon set. They include Greg Hands, George Osborne’s Private Parliamentary Secretary (PPS), the House of Commons’ version of a public school fag. Hands holds joint US and UK citizenship and returned to America in 2008 so he could vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey is also a neocon as is Nicholas Boles, PPS to the Schools Minister.

So two of Cameron’s most important Cabinet colleagues, and close personal friends, are declared neocons and a group of junior, talented and up and coming government figures are with them. Others in Cameron’s Cabinet are “liberal interventionists”, like the Foreign Secretary William Hague. A cynic might observe that “liberal interventionists” are to neocons what call girls are to hookers. They’re in the same business but one is more honest than the other about what they do.

The founder, nay inspiration of the liberal interventionists is Bush’s old pal, Tony Blair, about whom Michael Gove once wrote an article titled, would you believe, “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony”. That was on the eve of the Iraq war. Guardian reporter Richard Seymour, whose insightful writing informs much of this post, once observed: “…for many Tories, Blair is neocon Rex.” So wherever he turns, Cameron is confronted by neocon influence or its surrogate, Blairism.

As with their American counterparts, many of these Cameronian neocons are leading figures in a bewildering array of overlapping Think Tanks and front groups and it is here that perhaps the greatest influence on Cameron can be seen.

Prime amongst these is Policy Exchange (PE), a conservative think tank based in Westminster which was founded by Michael Gove, now Cameron’s Education

Nicholas Boles, another Cameron ally and founder of Policy Exchange

Secretary, and Nicholas Boles who was until 2007 Policy Exchange’s Director and later Cameron’s head of policy. The Daily Telegraph, whose former editor Charles Moore is now PE’s chairman, called Policy Exchange “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right” while the New Statesman termed it David Cameron’s “favourite think tank”.

In the final years of Tony Blair’s premiership the Notting Hill set would meet at Policy Exchange’s offices to discuss the future of their party and out of that was born the idea that he should make a bid for the leadership. The measure of the think tank’s influence on Cameron and the regard with which he held it was on view in June 2005 when he chose a Policy Exchange event to launch his bid for the top job. When he succeeded, the think tank’s star rose along with him. Money flowed in from the City of London and with its income rising tenfold, Policy Exchange’s research staff grew by a factor of seven.

A key figure in Policy Exchange, and in shaping Cameron’s political direction during his premeirship, is its Research Director on security issues, Dean Godson, a former feature and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and author of a celebrated if controversial biography of the Northern Ireland Unionist leader, David Trimble.*

Godson’s familial links to the neocon cause are impressive. His father Joseph, a Polish Jew who emigrated to America in 1926 at age 13, was a neoconservative before there were neoconservatives. A member of the American Communist Party he became disillusioned with Stalin at a very early stage and, skipping the Trotskyite phase, moved rightwards, joined the State department in 1950 and was stationed in London where he allegedly played a significant role meddling in the British Labour party’s internal politics much to the detriment of leftist figures like Nye Bevan, the father of British socialised medicine.

His other son Roy, based in Washington, is an expert in the shady business of counter intelligence/black propaganda and served on Reagan’s National Security Council where he helped Ollie North funnel Iranian cash to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Dean Godson’s two passions in life are Israel and Ireland, or to be more specific the cause of Likud and Ulster Unionism whose twin fates he saw threatened by the temptations of dialogue with untrustworthy terrorist adversaries, the PLO and the IRA, in the search for peace and political accommodation.

His friend David Frum, a Bush speechwriter famous, or infamous, for coining the phrase “axis of evil”, once wrote of the many anguished phone calls he would receive from Godson about the peace processes in Israel and Ireland during the 1990’s: “Dean kept pointing out….(that) they all shared a dangerous defect. They were attempts to make peace with terrorist adversaries who were not sincerely committed to peace”. (After the IRA called off its war and decommissioned its arsenals – thereby inconveniently demolishing Godson’s conspiracy theory – British neocons have instead turned to IRA dissidents as the next great threat, but less than convincingly)

Godson joined Policy Exchange when his benefactor Conrad Black lost control of the Daily Telegraph. The new editor, Martin Newland let Godson and Black’s wife and fellow writer, Barbara Amiel go because of their strident politics, as he later explained: “I soon came to recognise that (the Daily Telegraph was) speaking a language on geopolitical events and even domestic events that was dictated too much from across the Atlantic. It’s OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud, it’s OK to be pro-American but not look as if you’re taking instructions from Washington. Dean Godson and Barbara Amiel were key departures.” Conrad Black once called Palestinians “vile and primitive” while Barbara Amiel, in one of her pieces, compared Arabs to “animals”.

At Policy Exchange, Godson’s singular contribution has been, according to his many critics, to fan the flames of British Islamaphobia under the guise of confronting Muslim extremism and his methods have sometimes brought the think tank into unwelcome controversy.

In 2007 PE published ‘The Hijacking of British Islam’ which purported to show that extremist Muslim literature which, inter alia, advocated the stoning of adulterers and the beheading of apostates, was on sale in twenty-five per cent of British mosques. A BBC investigation revealed however that a number of receipts allegedly issued by mosques for the literature had been forged on PC’s or were written by the same hand.

Dean Godson (right) being grilled by the BBC's Jeremy Paxman over allegations of forgery in a Policy Exchange report on British Muslims

None of this seems to have deterred David Cameron however. In February this year he chose his first speech on terrorism as prime minister to announce the failure of British multiculturalism, echoing Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the need for a tougher stance on Muslim groups allegedly promoting extremism. Government contacts with and financial support for such groups would be re-examined and, if necessary, withheld, he declared. The speech was a feather in the cap for Dean Godson and Policy Exchange; it was also a notable triumph for the Tory party’s neoconservatives and clear evidence that Cameron was open to persuasion on other issues.

Key figures in Policy Exchange also populate the ranks of the Cambridge-based, British branch of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), set up in the midst of the Iraq war and so-named after the fiercely pro-Israel, anti-Communist Senator from Washington State, the late Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a figure regarded as something between patron saint and founding father of the American neoconservative movement.

Signatories to the HJS’s statement of neocon principles include Cameron allies and Policy Exchange founders, Michael Gove and Nicholas Boles as well as George Osborne’s “fag”, Greg Hands. Some of its researchers, like Martyn Frampton, have inherited Godson’s obsession with the dangers of talking to terrorists and Frampton has also been to the fore in projecting the tiny, heavily infiltrated and mostly corrupt IRA dissident groups as a new and major threat to peace in Ireland.

The corollary of such alarmism of course is the need for extra anti-terrorist resources, unceasing vigilance (not to mention paranoia) and, ultimately, the military strength to tackle not just the terrorists but those abroad who may sponsor and fund them, whether they be of the Irish or Muslim variety. While many British neocons have warmly welcomed David Cameron’s support for intervention in Libya they also express dismay at his unaltered plans to run down Britain’s military strength. Neoconservatism and the military state, like love and regret, go hand in hand.

The Henry Jackson Society has been anything but shy advocating the invasion of Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi. Type “Libya” into its website search bar and more than sixty articles and references appear, virtually all of them antagonistic to the Libyan leader or urging extreme action against him. One article written by HJS’s Global Security and Terrorism director George Grant and published recently in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal was headlined “Put the Mad Dog Down”.

As the situation in Libya deteriorated it set up an emergency “Committee for a Democratic Libya”, headed by the subject of Dean Godson’s autobiographical magnum opus, David, now Lord Trimble, the former NI Unionist leader who expressed himself in favour of supplying the rebels with military equipment and the services of unspecified “experts”. Libya, he told its inaugural meeting, “is the sort of situation where it would be utterly wrong for us to hang back”.

Activists in the Henry Jackson Society can also be found at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) based at King’s College London. Its publicly stated brief is to “educate the public in relation to diplomacy and strategy, public administration and policy, security and counter-terrorism and international conflict resolution.”

Its real function, fueling Islamaphobia, soon becomes apparent when you examine the biographies of just two of its research staff. One is an alleged Jihadist apostate called Shiraz Maher who doubles as a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He claims that he was once a member of the extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir group but became disillusioned and quit. He now preaches a virulent anti-Islam gospel given credibility by his purported past history (the neocons’ Irish equivalent is Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA leader and admitted spy for the Irish police and the British intelligence service, MI5).

Former Islamist Shiraz Maher......

....and Sean O'Callaghan, an IRA informer. Both apostates, and useful to the neocon cause

During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Maher wrote that British Muslims have a choice: “…between Hamas, a terrorist group committed to destroying a sovereign state and its people – and Israel, the region’s only democracy which is responding to that threat.”

The other is Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Yes, you guessed it, the son of Christopher Hitchens, former Trot and post-9/11 convert in all but name to the neoconservative cause. The apple did not fall far from the tree. Also a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens - the apple fell not far from the tree

blogger for the Henry Jackson Society, Hitchens junior shares all of his father’s detestation of things Islamic and then some, as Strathclyde Sociology professor, David Miller observed in an August 2010 profile: “He has no truck with the idea that U.S., U.K., or Israeli foreign policy or human rights abuses contribute to terrorism. ‘It is the ideology of Islamism,’ he writes, ‘which is the primary root cause of jihadist terror.’ This puts him at odds even with the British intelligence agencies. Even they have acknowledged that the invasion of Iraq exacerbated opposition to the U.K.”

This then is the British neoconservative network that surrounds David Cameron. Iraq-style regime change is undeniably their goal with Muammar Gaddafi playing the role of Saddam Hussein. The Iraq invasion was based on the lie of weapons of mass-destruction (WMD) but it is the specter of a failed state that is being used by neocons to justify the action against Libya. As one of them wrote, the war between Gaddafi and his rebels could “create an Afghanistan on our doorstep….a source of terrorism and piracy”.

Perhaps, but there’s a large element of the self-fulfilling prophecy at the core of neoconservative thinking. It is worth remembering that Afghanistan became a failed state in the first place because of foreign intervention, first by the Russians and then the Americans. Had Afghanistan been left alone there would have been no Al Qaeda training camps, no 9/11. The Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq has likewise left the region more unstable than it was before, more susceptible to Iranian influence than could ever have been imagined in Sadam Hussein’s day.

Obama is going down a road these two men travelled before him

The debacle of Iraq had sounded, many thought, the death knell of neoconservatism but the Arab Spring and the Libyan crisis have revived it. That, and the neocon clique that surrounds David Cameron. US president Barack Obama now finds himself attached to a project that many would have more readily associated with his predecessor. He can only hope that his foray into Libya will have a happier ending than the Bush-Cheney expedition to Iraq. If not he will have, in no small way, his British ally to thank as well as that ally’s neocon friends. Remember what the man, no friend of the neocons, said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

*In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I know Dean Godson quite well and while our respective views of the world, and the Irish peace process, are poles apart, I like him and enjoy his company. I once spoke at a Policy Exchange debate on the NI peace process and found myself, gratifyingly I should add, in the minority. But he was, as always, a gracious and generous host.

The Nuking of Barack Obama

With Japan teetering on the edge of a nuclear catastrophe potentially many times worse than Chernobyl, its government incapable of interacting candidly with its

A reactor on the edge of meltdown

own people and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns and runs the Fukushima reactor, a case study in Keystone Cop-like incompetence, many are looking to America for guidance and help and in particular to President Barack Obama for a lead.

The folks at TEPCO search for a lead

As the Japanese nuclear crisis faces its second week, Obama has announced a comprehensive safety review at all 104 reactors in the US. But just what is the track record of America’s 44th president in dealing with nuclear safety issues and the nuclear industry; how resolute will he be in the face of industry lobbying? It would be re-assuring to be able to say that in this case at least, the soaring rhetoric has been matched by action. But sadly, the answer is that it provides yet another metaphor for the Obama presidency and style of politics – he can talk the talk like no other politician in the hemisphere; the problem begins and stays with the walking part.

Obama’s connections to the nuclear industry surfaced briefly during the battle for the Democratic nomination with Hillary Clinton in the Spring of 2008 and then promptly disappeared. This was a pity because the story really told us all that we needed to know and have come to know about Obama in the White House, which is that what he says he will do when he is searching for votes and what he actually does do once he has got them are often two very different things. It also told us that, despite his campaign slogan of ‘Change’, Obama was no different from any other American politician; his vote could be bought and sold like a pig at market.

The story began on December 1st, 2005 when Exelon, an Illinois-based utility company and America’s largest single producer of nuclear energy (20% of all nuclear-generated electrical power) disclosed that traces of tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors, had been discovered in the water table at its Braidwood plant, some fifty miles southwest of Chicago. Within days tritium was found in wells nearby that provide drinking water to locals and Exelon admitted that the radioactive element had been present in millions of gallons of water that had leaked from the plant years before but the leakage had not been reported.

Now tritium, while a radioactive element, is not the most dangerous substance than can be released from a nuclear reactor. Unlike say Uranium 235 or Plutonium, being in the presence of tritium is not inherently dangerous – those old-fashioned watches with faces that glowed in the dark did so because tritium was painted on the numerals – and it is only when it is ingested in food or liquid that it can do harm. Clearly a lot of tritium had been released from Exelon’s plant and how much harm it may have done was an unanswered question compounded by the alarming realisation locally that other far more dangerous substances may have been released without anyone’s knowledge, except of course Exelon’s.

As Joseph Cosgrove who lived and worked in the nearby hamlet of Godley, Ill, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “We want people to be notified. Think about

Safe to drink?

it. They had releases and no one was told. How would you like to turn on the tap and (have to) think, ‘Should I drink this?’”

Cue the arrival of a white knight in the genial form of Illinois’ newest Senator, Barack Obama, elected just a year or so before the tritium leakage was disclosed and, since his electrifying keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, a rising star in the Democratic party and already touted by some as a future White House runner.

The existing law governing radioactive discharges from nuclear plants stipulated a requirement on the owners’ part to report leakages to state and local authorities only if they amounted to an “emergency”. So Senator Obama proposed a new law, called the Nuclear Release Notice Act of 2006, which stipulated that nuclear plants “shall immediately” notify officials at local, state and federal level of any accidental release of radioactive material that exceeded “allowable limits for normal operation”.

To objections from the nuclear industry that tritium posed not such a great health threat, Obama responded, according to the New York Times:

“This legislation is not about whether tritium is safe, or at what concentration or level it poses a threat. This legislation is about ensuring that nearby residents know whether they may have been exposed to any level of radiation generated at a nuclear power plant as a result of an unplanned, accidental or unintentional incident.”

It looked as though Senator Obama was going to do the rare thing in American politics, take a stand on behalf of ordinary people even if that was at the expense of corporate interests. Until that is the nuclear industry started cozying up to the Democrats. By 2006/2007, George W Bush’s unpopularity was at its peak and it was clear that any Republican candidate running for the White House in 2008 would likely take the blame for Bush’s follies and lose badly.

Traditionally, the nuclear lobby had always donated most heavily to the GOP but from 2006 onwards, as the result of the 2008 presidential race became more predictable, nuclear’s money went Democratic. When the race got underway the Los Angeles Times estimated that for every dollar that the nuclear industry gave to Republicans, it donated $3.50 to Democrats.

In the case of one of the leading Democratic contenders, Barack Obama, the nuclear industry’s bet paid off handsomely. Exelon and the nuclear lobby, the Nuclear Energy Institute, opposed Obama’s Bill and within a few months their lobbying helped gut the legislation.

Out went that requirement to “immediately” notify the authorities of any nuclear leakage and in its place the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was asked to “consider” public notification in the light of the findings of a special task force set up to examine the tritium discharges. Predictably, that task force reported that “existing reporting requirements for abnormal spills and leaks are at a level that is risk-informed and appropriate”. The Obama Bill was also re-written – the words apparently chosen by Exelon – to make it clear that State and local authorities would not be able to exercise regulatory oversight of nuclear reactors.

The one concession made by the nuclear industry was agreement that plants would “voluntarily” report leakages from now on. But as David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the New York Times: “…because it is all voluntary who’s to say where things will be in a few years from now?”

Joe Cosgrove, who had campaigned for Obama’s Bill, now complained in the media that the Illinois Senator was bending to the pressure: “Senator Obama’s staff was sending us copies of the Bill to review, and we could see it weakening with each successive draft. The teeth were just taken out of it”.

So why did Barack Obama water down his Bill and allow the nuclear industry to remove its heart and soul? Answer: they gave him lots of money.

Since 2003, when Obama started his run for the US Senate, Exelon employees and bosses had, by February 2008, contributed $227,000 to his Senate and White House bids. That’s a New York Times’ estimate. The Los Angeles Times claimed that $190,000 of that sum was for Obama’s White House campaign. Two of Exelon’s top executives, Frank M Clark, executive vice-president, and John W Rogers, a director, raised funds for Obama while John W Rowe, the chairman of both Exelon and the lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, was also a donor to his campaign. In addition, Obama’s key aide and adviser, David Axelrod had also worked as a consultant for Exelon.

In the event neither Exelon nor the nuclear industry need have worried. Although Obama had re-written and watered down his Bill, the Senate, which remained under GOP control in 2006, still found reason to object and stalled it. Obama re-introduced the legislation in 2007 but it went nowhere.

Obama took over $225,000 in campaign donation from Exelon staff

This did not stop Obama from claiming just the opposite. On the campaign trail in the winter of 2007/2008, he boasted about the Bill, telling voters in the Iowa primary that it was “the only legislation that I’ve passed. I just did that last year.” Not true but Obama’s claim went largely unchallenged. His main opponent, Hillary Clinton was in no position to exploit the slip, if such it was. Obama was the number one recipient of nuclear cash but Hillary came a close second.

Obama’s promise to the voters of Illinois went the same way as his presidential campaign pledges to, inter alia, offer a public option in health reform, to protect whistleblowers from prosecution, march alongside union members if their collective bargaining rights were threatened, end the Bush tax cuts to the rich and close down Guantanamo prison camp – abandoned in the face of powerful or wealthy opposition.

His current energy proposals include a $36 billion subsidy to the nuclear industry so it can build more reactors. When the policy was drawn up nuclear power looked preferable to oil and carbon-based fuels as a source for energy. The disaster in Japan is a timely reminder that nuclear energy is every bit as unappealing as conventional sources and that a major re-assessment of the Obama energy plan is now imperative. But in the light of the president’s interaction with Exelon, it might not be prudent to bet the mortgage that this will happen.