Obama, Israel, and the Politics of Catharsis


Obama’s Middle East mission, given star treatment at every turn, demonstrates, like the famous Cairo speech in his first term, verbal subterfuge, a handy cover for insinuating US power in the region even more than sought by his predecessors.  Oil is too simple a reason, though hardly negligible; rather, he appears to have a geopolitical strategy of global hegemony, political and ideological (from which the economic gains flow—instead of a more narrow-gauged imperialism), precisely to arrest America’s downward curve of influence and power in the increasingly multipolar context of world power-centers.  Israel is an outpost firming up US presence on one front.  No one else is equally dependable, but not taking chances, we see military bases and airstrips for drone warfare focused on Africa and thus ensuring saturated regional coverage—no specific “enemy” identified, except terrorism in general.  As I’ve said numerous times, counterterrorism is the surrogate for counterrevolution.

A less ambitious international posture might leave well enough alone, but the Middle East, though vital for its own sake, guards the gates of Asian expansion westward, and Russian southward.  Simply, Obama has China in the US’s cross-hairs, replacing Russia, in order to inaugurate a New Cold War, useful in the same respects as the Old, from stifling domestic criticism and protest to assisting banking and major corporations to achieve mega-growth proportions, rendering them supposedly untouchable.  The mind-set here is the domino theory:  Do not budge an inch on what seems the threefold goal of policymaking– privatization, financialization, militarization, all directed to the nature of American capitalism—else the entire edifice of the US political economy, and with it, its world power, would collapse.  Israel is merely one instance, a support of broadly conceived counterrevolution, with respect to its surroundings, and as the facilitator of US penetration, from securing oil to natural resources, throughout the hemisphere and encroaching still further East.

Meanwhile, America presses steadily West, the Obama-“pivot” being a masterstroke of sorts, intended to engage China directly, with the massive movement of forces, symbolically, the supercarriers, but also the bread-and-butter sinews of war: nuclear, non-nuclear, paramilitary, long-range bombers, all lined up to intimidate China, and behind China, the Far Pacific, including Japan and South Asia.  Where and how Obama came to this point, one that finds succor in market fundamentalism, Espionage Act-prosecutions, surveillance, all suggesting the domestic society placed on the same footing of militarism as in foreign policy, we’ll perhaps never know—or know only when it is too late.  But as we proceed, we should not be taken in by his speech today in Jerusalem (Mar. 21), as though he genuinely favors peace in that region or even would entertain the democratization implied by coequal standing of Israelis and Palestinians in a single unified nation based on the equal rights of all.

We see in this visit, all the stops pulled out, a politics of catharsis: say the right things, blow away the repression practiced on the Other, and then go back to turning the same screws.  Obama’s performance in Israel mirrors his domestic performance: promises meant to be broken, talk of peace while engaging in war, and when the accumulated deceit is about to burst open, provide the purgative with more words of unctious platitudes.  Obama-Brennan and Obama-Netanyahu (what I refer to below as compatible bedfellows) represent the face of liberal fascism, Obama the smiling face of betrayal, his partners here, the real thing of political thuggery and merciless killing.

[My New York Times Comment (Mar. 22) likely not published, given this paper’s penchant for censoring radical opinion]:

Obama’s putatively ennobling rhetoric (i.e., Ben Rhodes’s rather glib speechwriting) is not persuasive because Israel under no circumstances wants peace–and, by not taking a stand on the settlements, Obama merely reinforces that position. He loves the adulation (and support which will now come from home), but this trip is a clear example of public relations trumping substance. Perhaps we can see two further interventions (Iran, Syria), if indeed US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is finally winding down. Hints of that were dropped in his various conversations.

I am sick of being lied to, whether domestic or foreign policy. In this case, Obama overlooks the harshness of Israel’s occupation. The wall going up on the border between Israel and Egypt, as with the other walls (Gaza, Golan, etc.) speaks volumes about a hunkering down–Fortress Israel–rather than moving toward peace. And Obama legitimizes the charade.

But why expect otherwise? US armed drones for targeted assassination, Obama’s signature weapon, testifies to violation of international law with impunity, much as Israel too does–making for compatible bedfellows. In world opinion, the US and Israel are engaged in a race to the moral bottom via the militarization of the two societies. From Irgun to Likud to the present, a straightline projection of the will to dominate the Palestinians by whatever means, not unlike US foreign policy with its Obama emphasis on covert and paramilitary operations (CIA/JSOC).

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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