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The Epochal Speech

Obama’s Militarism-Imperialism Lite

by NORMAN POLLACK

A tissue of lies? No, the whole Kleenex box-one tissue interleaved with all the others.  Obama is fortunate to be presiding over a country steeped in false consciousness on essentials (war, sacrifice of the social safety net for the glories of militarism, and what psychoanalysts once called—T.W. Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality, 1950—authoritarian submission, a political-cultural disposition to strong leadership reinforced by appeals to patriotism and pressures toward conformity), as opposed to the major-parties’ bickering about how best to strengthen US imperialism.  His May 23rd Address therefore fell on receptive national ears, a desperate will to believe that immorality is moral, illegality, legal, and war, the necessary defense of Homeland in its centuries’-old quest for peace, honor, the rule of law.

How comforting!  Liberals and progressives especially have taken heart in POTUS’s rhetoric that a new day in American foreign policy is dawning—has already dawned, by the simple fact of self-declaration that the United States (Exceptionalism, as usual) is always bound by the constraints of the rule of law and, here, international law.  We wrote the book, and cannot possibly do wrong; selfless in serving first as the example, and then, the guardian, in bringing justice to the world.  All else is enemy propaganda.  With that as background (and a solid phalanx of flags as his backdrop) Obama spoke with becoming assurance—to me, arrogance—as the leader of the Enlightened World in its struggle against the forces of ignorance, darkness, covetousness, wholly oblivious to America’s moral sense and good intentions.

Such a masterful speech (as judged by the New York Times and mainstream media opinion) deserves a closer look—but not too close, lest the luster wear off.  Kudos to his stable of speechwriters, at least one in a high national-security position, for not even Obama on his own could reach the heights of personal humility and historical awareness found here, the latter, e.g., at the start, when he says, “For over two centuries, the United States has been bound together by founding documents that defined who we are as Americans [italics mine, a recurrent phrase of morally-presumed self-congratulation as a nation], and served as our compass through every type of change.”  The constancy of Constitutional guarantees and principles, such as—each with my implicit question mark behind it– due process of law, transparency in government, and the divulged reasoning for going to war.  Armed drones for targeted assassination alone suggests the “founding documents” have been lost.  Yet Obama persists. Through thick and thin (“we know that a price must be paid for freedom”), he provides the feel-good promise, that of ultimate victory—victory, each time, in the sequential process of further wars (the Obama-Brennan doctrine of permanent war): “But our commitment to Constitutional principles has weathered every war, and every war has come to an end.”

Then early on, he immediately swings into the theme of a halcyon period murderously shattered by the most sinister foces imaginable (far worse than Joe McCarthy conjured up with heathenish Communism): “With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a new dawn of democracy took hold abroad, and a decade of peace and prosperity arrived at home.  For a moment, it seemed the 21st century would be a tranquil time.  Then, on September 11th 2001, we were shaken out of complacency.  Thousands were taken from us, as clouds of fire, metal and ash descended upon a sun-filled morning.   This was a different kind of war.  No armies came to our shores, and our military was not the principal target.  Instead, a group of terrorists came to kill as many civilians as they could.” (Italics, mine)  The die is cast, war is justifiable, a just war, against an implacable enemy, must be fought.

Who could resist such persuasiveness?  Except of course someone who wishes to do harm to America, gradually enlarged to include domestic critics of Administration policy in the conduct of the war, thence expanded to dissidents of every stripe—although no action against them need be taken for now, given their relative scarcity and harmlessness—the climate of fear generated by means of counterterrorism being enough to bring the people into line.  And so, Obama could step forward smartly, a unified (cowed?) citizenry behind him, eager to hear of their own and the nation’s moral virtue.  America “strengthened our defenses—hardening targets, tightening transportation security, and giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror.”  We may have overstepped (here, the proper humility, although his frank admissions never lead to, and still do not, a change of course, making them more a political tactic than the soul-searching of which, given the record of assassinations, he is manifestly incapable):  “Most of these changes were sound.  Some caused inconvenience.  But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy.  And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values—by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”

The very abuses for which Obama must be held accountable, yet, now stated, to be pushed aside in the prosecution of the supposedly just war (Brennan in particular gave currency to the just-war position in the inner circle—anything goes being its succinct definition, in light of the hellish nature of the enemy).  So, notwithstanding “expanded surveillance,” etc., it is time for boastfulness, laying the basis for the new-new departure, following those herein taken:  “After I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda, but also sought to change its course.  We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership.  We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home.  We pursued new strategies in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces.  We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.”   This last sentence requires the whole box of Kleenex, multiple tissues (of lies), even consultations with Congress so one-sided as to make the relevant committees seem like beggars at the gates.

Indeed, it requires chutzpah to declare: Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world.”  Which is why we need vast concrete fortresses (aka, embassies) staffed by CIA operatives and private contractors, and the increased use—the new-new in process of formation and deployment—of Special Ops and paramilitary forces in general, all because we are so loved and admired in the world.  Obama must be standing in a parallel universe, to believe in the US’s “standing in the world.”  Then, his little tick or rhetorical giveaway–“Now make no mistake”—which is designed to make us perk up our ears and, in gratitude, hunker down for the message from on high:  Despite routing al Qaeda and killing bin Laden, and making America “safer because of our efforts,” he continues in admonitory voice, “our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” That warning drives the last nail in the coffin for any hope the US will alter its conduct in the world, break the vicious cycle of a perpetual-war mindset, awaken to the jurisprudential requirements of respect for law, international as well as national; terrorism becomes the Communist Menace of yore, in presumably flowing robes, out of instinctive recognition that American capitalism both thrives on “enemies,” and cannot do without them, to ensure its uncritical acceptance (and its freedom to act with impunity, however abusive) at home, and also thrives on the seemingly economic benefits of a permanent-war mode of stimulation (even though, as now, productive of unemployment and underconsumption, compared with directing the social surplus inward and an equitable distribution of wealth).

At times one feels the identity of the “enemies” is immaterial, just that they be there to keep the people in line, and the dominant structure of power intact.  In this regard, Obama is helpful, his speech tossing in all manner of terrorists, from the Right, from the Left, from the individual run amuck—it doesn’t matter, just let America always be on guard.  For America to operate as it has, as it wants, as it strives to continue, with hegemonic “responsibilities” always in view, and a domestic class system which preserves the prerogatives and powers of wealth, terrorism must hang like a thick pall over the mental landscape.  Otherwise, we may see what our Leaders, Generals, Bankers, Industrialists, and others fortunate to join the ranks of the ruling elite, are doing, and often doing in our name—transparency be damned.

To hang on Obama’s every word, in the hope that he understands the misery, privation, and death he has caused, or to be charitable, that has occurred on his watch for which he must be held accountable and himself take personal responsibility, merely creates a secondary level of meaning bearing no direct relation to reality, or worse, carries one down the dank public-relations tunnels of the White House and Democratic spinmeisters, in neither case giving one confidence he means what he says.  Thus, discussing the difficulties of mounting military operations against reputed terrorists, in which the consequences of  “putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis,” incidentally, nice enough of him to notice (!), Obama nevertheless can turn, in order to avoid the potential “backlash,” to what he euphemistically terms “remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” as the most humane, cost-effective way of killing (they’re too hard to capture) the enemy: “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” (Italics mine; I couldn’t resist, given the profound cynicism)

It gets better (or worse?), a defiant shout of legitimation, still withholding the legal memos which rationalize the state of war—in this case, explicitly, our friend “the just war,” which may not require further explanation, given the memo-writer comes not from the Office of Legal Counsel but Heaven itself: “Moreover, America’s actions are legal.  We were attacked on 9/11.  Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force.   Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.  We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first.  So this is a just war—a war waged proportionately, in last resort, and in self-defense.” (Italics, mine)  It is as though total annihilation awaits, if we do not act at once and decisively.  And those “associated forces,” for there will always be more, given the logic of the hit-list (the “nomination” process, in which POTUS personally has the last word, on Terror Tuesdays at the White House), validates the idea of permanent war.

Cynicism is joined by slickness, a not-unknown combination in Obama’s reperatory.  First, “And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.”  Self-declared “legitimate” in advance, what occurs as part of the supposed discussion next is not surprising.  Obama pretends restraint at the very moment that he, and from all available accounts working closely with Brennan, carefully lays the basis for binding later administrations to follow the very tactics, rules, and procedures that he has worked out—including of course drone warfare, assassination, and paramilitary operations.  In the speech, this is disguised by a mea culpa (again, swiftly washed down the drain) and then the distortion of the content of the counterterrorism planning: “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.  For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it.  That’s why, over the last four years, my Administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs the use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.”

This is quite a mouthful, deception at its keenest: a) the tactic, for sake of argument, assassination, which IS drone warfare and Obama’s signature weapon-system, now presumed legal, may not be wise or moral “in every instance,” perhaps only in the preponderance of cases—hardly dictating that it be abandoned; b) Obama’s admiration for high-tech weaponry, its antisceptic quality, which attracts him, not least because dispensing with boots on the ground, reveals an utter lack of affect when dealing with killing, given the strike is “half a world away,” and somehow because technology is associated in his mind with progress, makes the tactic itself commendable (as for abuse, the record is clear about so-called collateral damage and targeting funerals and first responders); and c) establishing “a framework governing the use of force against terrorists”  sidesteps the question of its content and intended binding quality, the PPG signed after so many years, if the Administration runs true to form, probably never to be made public or else heavily censored for national-security reasons.

I invite the hardy soul to weigh in further, before giving cause for celebration that POTUS has connected with the American people, advocates and works diligently for peace, and believes in social justice,  the rule of law, and the demilitarization of American capitalism and the nation’s political culture.

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.