The slithery junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama is ensuring himself a steady political diet of publicity by refusing to take his name out of consideration as a possible candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. We're entering the timeframe when all such aspirants have to make up their minds whether they can find the requisite money and political base. Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, the obvious peace-and-justice candidate, has already decided that he can't, which gives us a pretty revealing insight into the weakness of the left these days.

            It's a no-brainer for Obama to excite the political commentators by waving a "maybe" flag. It keeps the spotlight on him, and piles up political capital, whatever he decides to do in the end.

            It's depressing to think that we'll have to endure Obamaspeak for months, if not years to come: a pulp of boosterism about the American dream, interspersed with homilies about "putting factionalism and party divisions behind us and moving on." I used to think Sen. Joe Lieberman was the man whose words I'd least like to be force fed top volume if I was chained next to a loudspeaker in Camp Gitmo, but I think Obama, who picked Lieberman as his mentor when he first entered the U.S. Senate, is worse. I've never heard a politician so desperate not to offend conventional elite opinion while pretending to be fearless and forthright.

            We're nearly 13 months on from a fateful moment in our national political affairs. Last November, Rep. Jack Murtha had just given a savage jolt to the White House. This former chairman of the House Armed Services committee had publicly delivered the actual opinion of the generals: "I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. … The United States will immediately redeploy -- immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free, free from a United States occupation. And I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process."

            And who knows, if Murtha's counsel had been followed, maybe it would have saved Iraq from the horrors now unraveling. But Democrats fled Murtha, few with more transparent calculation than Obama, who voyaged to the Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 22, 2005, to soothe the assembled elites with such balderdash as "The president could take the politics out of Iraq once and for all if he would simply go on television and say to the American people, 'Yes, we made mistakes … " or "we need to focus our attention on how to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. Notice that I say 'reduce,' and not 'fully withdraw' … or "2006 should be the year that … the various Iraqi factions must arrive at a fair political accommodation to defeat the insurgency; and three, the Administration must make available to Congress critical information on reality-based benchmarks that will help us succeed in Iraq."

            A couple of weeks ago, Obama unleashed another cloud of statesmanlike mush about Iraq to an upscale foreign policy crowd in Chicago. Trimming to new realities he's now talking about a four-to-six month timeframe for beginning withdrawal from Iraq. Don't mistake this for any real agenda. It's a schedule that can be pulled in any direction, like a rubber mask from a Christmas stocking.

            This week, many Americans have stared aghast at the photos of Jose Padilla, manacled hand and foot, blinded by special goggles, being escorted by his U.S. military jailers from his isolation cell to the dentist. His lawyers say that his horrible treatment, four years of total isolation and sensory deprivation, have rendered him incapable of defending himself.

            The treatment of Padilla -- classed as "an enemy combatant" until the U.S. government prosecutors were forced to reclassify him as a criminal defendant earlier this year – was obviously a diligent exercise in torture, akin to what has been meted out to "enemy combatants" held in the U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo. Last year, Illinois' senior U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, bravely got into trouble for likening conditions at Guantanamo to those in a Nazi or Stalin-era camp. This was one of Durbin's finer moments, as he read an FBI man's eyewitness describing how he had entered interview rooms "to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more.

            "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course."

            The right-wing mad-dog crowd jumped on Durbin, and eventually he paid the penalty of having to eat crow on the Senate floor. His fellow senator from Illinois, Obama, did not support him in any way. He said, "we have a tendency to demonize and jump on and make mockery of each other across the aisle, and that is particularly pronounced when we make mistakes. Each and every one of us is going to make a mistake once in a while ... and what we hope is that our track record of service, the scope of how we've operated and interacted with people, will override whatever particular mistake we make."

            That's three uses of the word "mistake." Obama had his fingers stuck in the wind as always. He bends to every breeze, as soon as he identifies it as coming from a career-threatening quarter. This man is no leader.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.