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Lest We Forget

Dr. King, Obama, and the Run-Up to War

by NORMAN POLLACK

Less than a week following the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it is as though, from the standpoint of what Dr. King symbolically represented and actively fought for, and where America, under Obama’s leadership, presently is, the nation has altogether forgotten the first in its true magnificence as, more than an appeal for peace and justice, a determined opposition to the Vietnam War and a mobilization of the Poor People’s Campaign, and the second, a gross perversion of Dr. King’s legacy, a mental numbness of passive acceptance now setting in as the countdown continues to the run-up of a military attack on Syria.

This psychopathic amnesia is expected, given what Obama has already gotten away with, not least, his personal authorization of targeted assassination and his absolute disregard for civil liberties with his campaign of massive surveillance and vengeance toward the whistleblowers who have dared to reveal unconstitutional government practices, hitherto surrounded in secrecy. The commemoration of the March was a misguided falsification of Dr. King’s legacy, an affront to the memory of the dead by having invited Obama to speak and thereby bask in the sunshine of the occasion, deriving prestige from Dr. King’s goodness, while actively planning war with Syria—and what lies beyond, further confrontation with both Russia and China.

Obama has turned Dr. King’s projection of a nation and world founded on brotherhood upside down, a world careening out of course, so badly has he inflamed international politics and, in his quest for US hegemony, brought us to the doorstep of fascism. The festivities marking the event are over, but I should like to recall Dr. King’s own statements about American intervention shortly before he was assassinated as possessing a searing criticism of USG policy then, having equal if not more relevance today in virtually every foreign-policy step that Obama has taken, from the modernization of nuclear weaponry to the coordination of CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations, from Iraq and Afghanistan to, now, Syria.

First, the premeditated treachery of announcing a red line, which provides the standard, violation of which allows and legitimates retribution on the part of the assigning power—a way of entering a war as though a rescue mission (aka, humanitarian intervention), and thus, selfless, fully justified, a power with spotless hands. Never mind, the source of the violation still remained in doubt when the declaration for intervention was made public (in fact, the chemical-warfare standard applied to Syria was announced months before, as though dropping a precedent for action, a contingency plan for inviting intervention), and efforts at UN investigation and determination were ridiculed by the Obama administration without cause, suggesting no mood to brook opposition—the hegemonic steamroller in progress. No-one had thought to ask, what if the situation was reversed? For that would have implied an unthinkable line of reasoning to the American mindset, so accommodating has it been to Obama’s questionable practices and policies.

Specifically, armed drones for targeted assassination—a war crime from start to finish, and if the murdered were tabulated, vaporized on the spot, from thousands of miles away, the victims often unidentified or misidentified, the signature strikes at funerals for the dead or of first responders seeking to aid the victims, they would exceed (but this should not be thought a numbers game!) those killed in the chemical-weapons attack. In these circumstances, what if the Chinese or Russian government took it upon itself to enforce the laws of “international morality” and drew a red line, holding that targeted assassination, the violation of which implicated the United States, warranted a military attack on the perpetrator as presumptive evidence of war-crimes guilt?

I know it is terribly churlish, not to say, unpatriotic, to argue, “What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander,” but perhaps that alone would bring Americans to their senses, i.e., realizing the full impact on ourselves the destruction, tortures, death, we inflict on others. Wouldst one or both drew such a line, on a practice which leaves its victims blood spats and, the drones whirring overhead, terrifying and disrupting the lives of whole communities, in which case, these nations, acting on their own, without UN sanction, and in violation of international law, would bomb, first, the bases, such as Djibouti, and if that did not stop the practice, direct the bombs to The Homeland, where drone-facilities and manufacturing sites exist.

Yes, what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander, and then see how America likes it. It won’t, because living in terror is for someone else, not for Americans, who have already inflicted and continue to inflict misery with impunity on whomever it declares an enemy—world law and world opinion be damned. There is a self-righteous atmosphere, a cloud of morbidity, engulfing the White House, an obsession with power, the disease of aggression as a means of warding off collective self-doubts about inner weakness that all the armaments in the world cannot protect against, the dim or suppressed recognition of a driven society wanting to devour the world’s wealth and power as though a God-given right because of a putative moral superiority based on an equally putative Exceptionalism, the cloak historically thrown around American capitalism to disguise its expansionist policies and hide its exploitative practices and record.

On August 28, Obama said on the PBS “NewsHour” that “We can take limited tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict,” a statement, probably worked out by Ben Rhodes, repeated ad nauseum in the six days since, in the run-up to a military attack on Syria, assurances, incidentally, so transparently phony that not only has the United Kingdom jumped off the boat, but also usually supine members of Congress are speaking up. Obama, however, remains undaunted, skillfully, unctuously, spilling oil on troubled waters to allay doubts of massive intervention, as he meanwhile waits for the moment to strike.

Now, of course, his luck is changing, still small yet unaccustomed criticism, some now beginning to see through him, necessitating, because he does not respond well to any criticism, tending rather to overreact lest his true self be discovered, primarily for damage control, the turning to Congress in order to legitimate the intervention. Political “wisdom” suggests the move, with a public-relations barrage on the Sunday talk shows by Kerry intended to achieve the desired outcome—intervention once again, hopefully smelling like a rose. This is the most advertised intervention in memory, orchestrated with great care, on the erroneous, morally repulsive grounds, that not to go through with it is a sign of weakness, of losing credibility in the eyes of “friends and allies” and the American public, of the US no longer to be relied on, and horror of all, not attacking Syria, leaves Israel hanging out to dry, the attack on Syria in reality done as a warning to Iran, the chemical attack by now all but forgotten in the grand game of geopolitics.

The claims of having and then making public the evidence implicating Assad in the chemical attacks appear vacuous to misleading, John Kerry replacing John Brennan as point man for putting a happy face on intended and soon realized war crimes. Kerry is Hillary in pants: nonapologetic, tough-minded, lusting for battle. Obama’s “tailored” approach has as usual for its chief component the “surgical strike” beloved of Pentagon and CIA sadists, no matter the target, as, again, in drone warfare, where it is surgical to identify funerals and first responders and keep the “collateral damage” to a minimum—except that “collateral damage” is the name of the game because the strikes are designed to terrorize the people as a whole. (As I write, the people—human beings like you and me—in Damascus are preparing for the worst.) The watchword: Kill in the name of stopping the killing, only killing (1) exceeds killing (2), and in this case, we’re not sure who was responsible for the chemical attacks.

Worst case scenario, Assad launched the attack, would that still justify American intervention? Are we the custodians of global virtue, given the US record of interventions, beginning at least with Korea and Vietnam and extending through what is euphemistically termed “regime change,” as in Chile, and covert as well as overt operations, the CIA riding high in the saddle, having counterrevolutionary objectives, all showing contempt for and the violation of international law? Chutzpah is the polite term for pretending to voice the concerns of humankind. Yet, this latest intervention, when it comes, may well be the most significant because, with the Manning and Snowden revelations, Obama and the US might well feel they have nothing to lose—the world already knows the score, from killing innocents for sport (the helicopter gunship video) to massive surveillance worthy of an advanced post-Kafka police state.

Why, then, even hold back, when Syria offered the prospect–the ideal setting—for implementing what had tactfully been for a short time (the image of paragon while shaping and leading coalitions of the faithful) kept muted, a striving unilateralism having obvious global-hegemonic aims in all relevant categories of power, from military, political, and economic, to ideological and cultural. One significance of this intervention is the flagrant notice to the UN that America regards it as obsolete, indeed a roadblock to America’s rightful guardianship of world stabilization and its own prosperity. But more, as even Pentagon “experts” now point out, Obama risks a widening conflict, not merely the tinderbox that the Middle East has become, but a conflict which draws in the Great Powers. Fittingly, he doesn’t care. His word is sacred, even if the whole world comes crashing down.

The rally-around-the-flag mentality that will support him once the die is cast, poignantly reveals how far we have drifted as a nation and as a people. War will seem like just another bowl game, so long as one does not dare cheer for the other side. (Welch’s statement to Joe McCarthy flashes to mind: “Sir, have you no shame?”) Has the nation, now, no shame? What hurts me, personally, because of my strong feelings for Dr. King, and the times we crossed paths in demonstrations, a period, perhaps because the injustice was so manifest, that America, by recognizing it, was a better place, a place of Schwerner-Cheney-Goodman, giving their lives in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a place of selfless protest on behalf of genuine democracy, is that Obama, the same day that he commemorates the March on Washington on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gives, hours apart, a string of lies about “tailored approaches” to the attack (in my book, especially in light of the overcrowding of refugees in Damascus, political murder), and delivers a speech platitudinous even by his standards.

I wish that all would personally take offense, this juxtaposition of Dr. King and Obama in mind, and how vile the policies of the latter are. This would go into domestic policy as well, wherein Dr. King gave his life in leading the Poor People’s Campaign, while Obama smooches with the megabankers and is on the eve of appointing Larry Summers as head of the Federal Reserve—but that whole area, itself intimately connected to the Syrian intervention, must wait upon another time.

Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, in their NYT article, “U.S. Facing Test on Data to Back Action on Syria” (Aug. 29), in addition to showing how the administration is already downplaying the quality and quantity of the evidence to be presented (even the setting, unlike Powell’s staged performance on Iraqi WMD, would be routine and low-keyed to avoid memories of the earlier lying and faulty intelligence), had this important sentence bearing on the utter amorality of the situation (although they did not draw this conclusion): “But even without hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack, administration officials asserted, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.”

By precisely that reasoning, Obama should have been hauled before the International Criminal Court for targeted assassinations, waterboarding, and a thousand-and-one cases of “collateral damage,” a list continuing to expand, and from a man who claims to be walking in the footsteps of Dr. King, who would have pronounced Obama the enemy of humankind analogous to his criticism of US leadership during the Vietnam War. When over the weekend the administration gave a briefing to members of Congress, only some eighty showed up, and, from reports, the evidence pointing to Assad was flimsy to nonexistent. Smoke and mirrors, Kerry on the talk-show circuit, Obama working the phones, together the sincerity and credibility of snakeoil salespersons offering Brooklyn Bridge to the newly arrived.

Remember, Dr. King said (this would be applicable to Obama on Syria): “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.” And again: “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It [America’s soul] can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.” One such hope is to live in peace—and Obama’s compulsive warriors (aka, national-security advisers), and their humanitarian-intervention racket, are making that impossible. It is shameful that Obama was invited to speak at the commemoration of the March, in the very shadow of war preparation (now, Syria, whom next?). Here is Dr. King, whose words should send the whole Washington caboodle to Hades: “War is not the answer. We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”

Welcome, to the Obama administration, wholly bereft of compassion, morality, and sight, although possessing in abundance power, might, and strength—as the missile-firing destroyers off Syria attest. Casualties, wholly beside the point, so long as the response is robust, building confidence that America keeps its word whenever it plans to attack. One should not hold one’s breath about the possibility of Congressional disapproval, John McCain, on September 2, stating for the cameras that although he would prefer stronger action, Congress cannot withdraw support from POTUS here, lest it send a signal to the world that America is weak, lacks resolution, implicitly, is sinking. Stand up, and fight, together cheerleaders for war; and to the extent McCain has counterparts in the Democratic party (he assuredly does), we see brought out not for the first time its moral bankruptcy and that of its leaders. We see also the perhaps more ambitious vision and version of hegemony than at any time before, in response to an American capitalism beginning to totter, consumed by the greed of its upper groups and its ideological-political suffusion of militarism.

My New York Times Comment (Aug. 29) on editorial raising questions about the Syrian intervention:

One wonders what would happen if the US were brought before the Security Council on charges of targeted assassination, surely a violation of international law and responsible for killing more people than the chemical attacks in Syria. Let’s clean our own Augean stable before mounting yet another unlawful intervention, however “surgical” the operation. Two intriguing points: why Obama’s rush to judgment (as though a personal addiction to war and the use of force), and, perhaps more basic, stated in the editorial’s final sentence, does military action have “a broader strategic purpose”? The first I leave to others, although my own reading of his character is that he has a craving for power tied in with traits displayed in both his political ascent and the way he has ingratiated himself with key communities, such as banking, intelligence, and military. The second, however, deserves further thought; for, as with Egypt (here backing military repression), he seeks US regional hegemony in the Middle East as a launching pad for tighter control over Southern Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and, farther afield, for applying pressure on China and Russia.

The US is fishing in troubled waters, for reasons which are hardly above suspicion. From Egypt and Syria to Obama’s foreign-policy signature, the “pivot” to the Pacific, and therefore, the containment of China, seems a direct progression to this observer.

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. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch in the fall of 2013.