While a comparison to the coronation of George the Fifth as Emperor of India might be a bit of a stretch, the recent tour of Barack Obama to the British Isles does have an uncomfortable similarity with the 1860 visit to Canada and the United States by Edward, the Prince of Wales. Back then, Britain was at the top of the Anglo-American duet, while nowadays the opposite is true. Edward was years away from becoming King, so his journey was merely for show. Mr. Obama may be president, but the real power in Washington lies where it has for decades: in the Pentagon and the industries it serves either directly or otherwise. Platitudes, not substance, were what Mr. Obama brought with him to Great Britain.
Barack Obama told the British Parliament that the longing for freedom “beats in every human heart.” He also stated that American and British leadership of the world remains “essential to the cause of human dignity.” What he did not acknowledge was the fact that these two nations and their Empires have made human dignity an unattainable reality for millions who toil under their economic regime. Likewise, the history of these two nations on the world stage includes some very ugly episodes involved in denying the very freedoms Mr. Obama claims are the result of these nations’ leadership.
As far as history goes, perhaps Mr. Obama should review his. Referring to the current uprisings and rebellions across the Arab world, he compared them to the struggles against the former states associated with the Soviet Union, South African apartheid and dictatorships in Southeast Asia and Latin America. By confusing the struggles against the totalitarian states of Eastern Europe with the struggles against dictatorships in Latin America and apartheid South Africa, Mr. Obama is essentially comparing apples to oranges. After all, it was the US (especially) and Britain that supported not only the dictatorships in Latin America, but also the apartheid regime in South Africa. This support was not only monetary and political but, in the case of Washington, also military. In contrast, it was the Soviet Union that supported the struggles against these regimes while also opposing the US-created and supported dictatorships across Southeast Asia. For Mr. Obama to suggest otherwise is misleading and just plain false.
Yet, it is not the least unusual. The view from the White House and Capitol Hill compares quite favorably to that from Parliament and 10 Downing Street. What looks like freedom from the Oval Office and Buckingham Palace looks a lot more like servitude and economic despair on the ground in the NorthWest Frontier of Pakistan or the camps of Gaza. The fact that a man with dark skin now shares the same view as the one enjoyed by Disraeli does not make it any less imperial. It only shows the ever-expanding sophistication of those behind the thrones of capital and the willingness of those whose ancestors fought the empire to serve its modern day equivalent.
When I was younger, my family was stationed in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Air Force base we lived on was a small station devoted to spying on the USSR and China. It had some connection to the U2 flights that changed when Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory. My dad had one friend whom we did not address by rank. We called him Mr. S. I found out years later that he was most likely with the CIA. That was why he had no rank. Not only did he not have a rank, he also did not live on base. Instead, he lived in a hotel left over from the time of the British Raj. Every few weeks, he would come by our house on base with his driver and pick me up. After stopping at the hotel where we sat on the porch and ate various Pakistani dishes, his driver would take us out to one of the villages in the surrounding area. While Mr. S. discussed things in Urdu with various older men and the occasional Pakistani military officer, I would play with the local boys. Then we would eat a very tasty dinner roasted over a fire. Dinner was usually over by dark and then we departed, leaving the villagers in their village while I was taken back to my air-conditioned home on base.
This childhood existence is a partial metaphor for the imperial view Mr. Obama touted as freedom to the British Parliament. As a part of the US military presence in Pakistan, I was quite free to come and go as I pleased as long as my military or military-affiliated escort was present. Mr. S. was even more able given his adult age. Yet, it was his work and the work of the US military in that country that ensured that any freedom the Pakistani boys I played with would come only at a price their entire nation would pay. In fact, those boys may very well have already paid with their lives. If not, and if they have joined forces opposed to Obama’s vision of freedom, a drone could cash in their payment at any time. Freedom does have a price and the rest of the planet has been paying for Washington’s for a long time.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org