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Obama, Executive Power, War

Precedent for Dictatorship

by NORMAN POLLACK

Preliminaries: US Geopolitics, Capitalism, Syria

Obama’s movement toward war, simultaneously making a pitch to Congress, as though going through the motions for the sake of legitimacy, in domestic affairs (i.e., supposedly satisfying Constitutional requirements and principles), while, except for the lame arguments of humanitarian intervention and a threat to America’s national interest, is vulgarizing the interpretation of international law. Obama appears to be doing so in order to gain exemption from the valid charge of war crimes and outright contemptuously repudiating the status and power of the United Nations, in particular, by-passing the need for Security Council approval for war is, “cute,” sinister, sadistic, and usurping by far, far more dangerous in the precedent he is creating for arbitrary (domestic) and unilateral (international) actions than anything that had been done by Reagan, Clinton, and Bush I and II.

Obama drank the poisons of hegemony, liberating a gut-militarism and psychopathic self-glorification in both cases capable not only of subverting the Constitution through the rearrangement of government powers but also of bringing the world crashing down. He has become, in the context of a seemingly localized police action which has unlimited possibilities for expansion itself, and as a geostrategic foot-in-the-door for confrontation via a strong presence in the Middle East with both China and Russia, a menace. Period.

One cannot help but believe that Team Obama (with John Kerry taking a surprisingly prominent role, and Susan Rice, as the Madam Chiang-Kai-shek of our time), frustrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, have actually welcomed Syria as the new venue for the display of American power! The thirst for hegemony is too great for these Kissinger-Strangelove wannabes to resist manufacturing a crisis which, despite the internal problems and dislocations of American capitalism, or perhaps because of them, places the US military in a position of world supremacy. What capitalism lacks, militarism rounds out the cluster of attributes for global power.

It is evident that Obama is on a rampage, itself a sure sign of desperation, militarily finding consummation for a personal arrogance resting on insecurity, and for that reason, as well as ideological conviction, throwing his full weight on the side of a consolidated financial structure as the forward edge of American capitalism. Attack Assad, appoint Summers, inseparable elements of an unbalanced mindset seeking, through the financialization and militarization of American capitalism, the ego-satisfaction of one clutching for tangible expressions of strength. Obama is the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, a manifestly unqualified POTUS (but aren’t they all?), who, unlike FDR, cannot, and appears not to want to, bring America out of economic crisis through policies of increasing employment, achieving basic human needs, and addressing problems of conservation and infrastructure (comparison with FDR and the New Deal not out of place precisely because even government innovation and judicial activism did not, as now, wrench the Constitution out of its moorings).

It is no coincidence that counterterrorism, surveillance on a massive scale, targeted assassination, and a Pacific-first strategy to isolate and contain China are, as it were, joined at the hip under Obama, because together they define a unified pattern which helps to make the military attack on Syria explicable. It is America against the rest of the world, a broadly conceived counterrevolutionary ideology, geopolitical strategy, and military posture, nominally in the name, for now, of opposing terrorism, but integral to the long-term course of American capitalist development fearing the dangers and weakness of senescence, and fending them off through more aggressive international conduct.

If it turns out that rebel forces in Syria were responsible for the chemical attack, Obama and the US would find a face-saving device still to proceed under some other pretext, or quickly open a new front of military activity. The Strangelovian juices are flowing; any obstruction to their flow would imperil “credibility” as the sine qua non of US Exceptionalism, greatness, and the self-justifying mantra, humanitarian intervention. When the latter is raised, Watch out world.

That’s Not Who We Are: A Genocidal Rhapsody

I can still remember, as a child, a cartoon in the early 1940s, in which Hitler, arms in swirl, screams out, “If what I say isn’t true, may God…”—and people running away every direction. Similarly when Obama says, as recently as September 6, departing from St. Petersburg, about Assad’s putative use of chemical weapons, and America’s own resolute moral opposition, “That’s not who we are as a people,” one does the same, run for cover, lest one get struck by lightning bolts from Heaven as a sign of God’s displeasure because of the manifest lie. Obama is good at them. Fortunately, napalm is classified as a defoliant, not as a chemical weapon, as tons of this inflammable chemical poured down on the Vietnamese people in the US scorched earth policy of murderous execution.

Today, we have the “surgical strike” that replaces carpet bombing, only somehow large numbers of civilians are killed indiscriminately, anyway, with the armed drone for targeted assassination unctuously pronounced not in violation of international law or moral decency—and, at this moment, B52 and Stealth bombers, along with the carrier Nimitz and its battle group, and a battleship delicately parked in the Red Sea, all poised for a, what, surgical strike? A bunch of cut-throats like this, dressed in proper Washington legalese, we haven’t seen, even under Bush II, where gut-Reaction is now being replaced by an antisepticising fascism which wipes away all traces of moral scruple, in the name of humanitarian intervention.

Obama is truly a study. He turns to Congress for approval, thinking this pro forma maneuver cleanses his bloody hands (thank you Medea Benjamin and CodePink for raising those red hands signifying blood in the congressional hearings!), which approval, at present writing, may not work, as Members receive an earful from home—and yet for Obama it doesn’t matter because he plans to go ahead with military action anyway, whatever Congress says or does. Cynicism, arrogance, growing Executive Power, they together make for a heady brew. More disturbing, however, is America’s public announcement that it will reign down death on the Syrian people, hour-by-hour intensification of agony for them, as Obama plays his war game, each postponement, such as votes in Congress, adding to his own sense of arbitrary power—and I suspect, pleasure.

Too harsh? How explain a POTUS who on Terror Tuesdays, surrounded before by Brennan, now Rice, and national-security advisers who, to a person, are committed to a policy of regularized assassination, not only along with Obama, but at his personal authorization, in which the very whirring sound of the drones overhead is seen as turning the screws in the campaign of terrorizing the civilian population, each fearful of the missile strike crashing down on their homes in the middle of the night (we know this from the Stanford-NYU law faculties’ study, based on on-site interviews), and Obama, at the same time, bleating, “that’s not who we are as a people”? Too harsh? Does sadism get a free pass? Apparently so, in light of the absence of criticism, especially in the most respectable voices of the mass media. Perhaps, for once, Obama has crossed an imaginary red line of another kind and of his own making in which the American public is beginning to wake up to the barbarism practiced in its name and with its previous approval.

This march to war, a self-advertisement of American hegemony, has to do with everything but chemical weapons. As I’ve noted in a previous CP article, Syria is a pawn on the chessboard of power politics, yet, to put a finer point on the analysis, it is America’s stepladder for getting back up to a unilateral position of world supremacy as, in fact, the global geopolitical structure is rapidly moving away from American political-economic-military dominance through evolving into a multipolar system of power based on the simultaneous weakening of US capitalism and the rising industrial-financial potential of China and Russia and emerging contenders like Brazil. Straws in the wind, just this past week: Obama’s failure to receive the approval of the Group of 20 for America’s war plans, his failure to get the UK on board, and Putin’s direct, no-nonsense statements about the violation of international law.

Things are happening fast in world politics, as though there was already widening receptive ground for what might otherwise have seemed an adventitious factor (but what was bound to come about when a government, in the excesses of secrecy, was committing illegal acts): the revelations of Manning and Snowden, political dynamite in blowing the lid on America’s “democratic” practices. The world was invited to see the commission of war crimes, nations—and particularly their leaders, from Germany to Brazil—eavesdropping on their plans and policies, and, perhaps most shattering, the massive surveillance on Americans themselves, suggesting the government’s contempt for its own citizenry. If USG steamrollers over the civil liberties of its people, how can others take its word about anything? Not surprisingly, we hear a hue and cry over credibility, as though making up for lost ground.

Obama’s red line, though political savagery of the first water, becomes twisted into the moral rectitude of keeping our word—even though that word signifies the death and destruction of others. The false oath of a bully here ascends to the heights of democratic principle—with the new puppet on the block, John Kerry, slinging hash to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on America’s moral-humanitarian obligation to serve the world.

The Manning-Snowden revelations achieved more for the hoped-for rescuing of American democracy than perhaps anything since the civil-rights struggle and the Vietnam antiwar protests, because there is now no longer any excuse for passivity as America eases into a posture of militarized capitalism borne of desperation at finding itself compelled to share the sought-after objectives of the international system, markets, investments, raw materials, particularly oil, with major industrial nations which themselves are showing greater flexibility with, and in some cases advancing the interests of, Third World countries, in addition to experiencing sustainable rates of growth of their own the envy of the US.

Unilateralism has made America too sure of itself, to the point of hubristic self-indulgence, if not a downright messianic complex of universal faith-giver, either way, backed by military prowess, the “faith” being unrestrained capitalism under American guidance and leadership. Why Manning-Snowden importance? Primarily because, on behalf of presumably normalizing globalization, the US will go to any lengths to maintain military superiority in the world and the destruction of critical thinking and analysis that could lead to societal democratization at home. To have the prevailing framework of widening class-differentials of income, wealth, and power, matched by the diminution of scope and benefits of the social safety net, all coupled with deregulation of banking, now-endemic unemployment, the erosion of the manufacturing base, failure to address climate change, and a gnawing increase of poverty over and beyond differences of class and status, requires a concerted dumbing down of the populace.

Welcome, surveillance, a clear first step in the conversion from monopoly capital to fascism. Perhaps the horrendous revelations come too late. Whether the Left is a slumbering giant or a concubine in the corporatist harem, coming events in the premeditated Obama-inspired attack on Syria may tell. It is now wake-up time for the world.

Presidential War Powers

Charlie Savage, in a New York Times article, “Obama Tests Limits of Power in Syria Conflict” (Sept. 9), has an excellent discussion of the dangers raised by Obama’s claims to Executive Authority, as in making war with or without Congressional authorization, and the grounds offered for exercising this power, wholly problematic, arbitrary, convenient on his part (although Savage does not quite go this far). The Obama strategy is to give the intervention a limited character a la Kosovo and Libya (neither of which bears out his own characterization), and thus allay concerns of a protracted conflict and the possible embroilment of the whole region, including Israel, in sectarian violence, territorial disputes, and worse—the “worse” being confrontation of the Great Powers, first, through proxy wars, and then, directly, risking the use of nuclear weapons.

Tinderbox, for the Middle East, is too mild a description—although Obama appears bent on gambling with the world’s future, credibility, in this case, signifying, who blinks first. Yet, this is, as Savage points out, the immediate level, gaining congressional authorization on the domestic front. He continues, in an encompassing sentence: “On another level, the proposed strike is unlike anything that has come before—an attack inside the territory of a sovereign country, without its consent, without a self-defense rationale and without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or even the participation of a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO, and for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred rather than preventing an imminent disaster.” (Italics, mine)

I have italicized words in the statement to point up the obvious—together, a precedent is being set, one which ignores or violates international law and/or established practices at every turn: abridgement and rejection of another nation’s sovereignty, disregard for the UN and even NATO, as a primal unilateralism signaling to the world claims of pre-eminence and arrogating to America, indeed, America alone, a right to define the rules of international politics and conduct as it sees fit, including, finally, designating as war crimes what and when—here timing is important—are viewed to be inimical to US interests.

The two may appear as “contrasting moves” (Savage), “a political role for Congress domestically while expanding national war powers on the international stage,” but only if Obama actually sought Congress’s approval, rather than what those around him readily admit, full speed ahead on spurious grounds, although to him and them, not spurious because in his infinite wisdom, and the rubber-stamping of the DOJ’s White House Office of Legal Counsel, its function under Bush (John Yoo), and now Obama (Kathryn Ruemmler), being to provide memos sanctioning what in the first place has already been decided, POTUS will have the leeway to act with impunity. This is exactly what is now happening, with Ruemmler—a name new to most of us—sanctioning presidential military action practically as inhering in the office, and by definition as lawful, whether in domestic or international law, whatever Congress and the Security Council might say.

The “by definition” is a way of saying, departures of policy and practice, as in the preparatory work of Obama and Brennan in seeking not simply legal justification (national-security presumed necessity for one, just-war doctrine, for the other) about the program of armed drones for targeted assassination, but more important, how to bind future administrations to its operations can be, and here are, intentionally sought precisely for establishing precedent, i.e., Obama’s dramatic extension of Executive Power, in which military intervention and domestic surveillance form a happy marriage on which to build national power.

Of course, Obama in 2008 either misled the public by coming out in opposition to a presidential authorization of military force unless the nation faced an actual or imminent threat, or, what is doubtful, had a sea-change of constitutional interpretation and understanding of the nature of leadership, both of which belie his tendency from that campaign on self-righteously to betray those announced principles. As Savage notes, by 2011 and with Libya all caution about limited presidential war powers were thrown to the wind, his Office of Legal Counsel arguing that “it was lawful for him to unilaterally order American forces to bomb Libya because of national interests in preserving regional stability and in supporting the ‘credibility and effectiveness’ of the Security Council.” True, there was a Council approval of the NATO intervention, but not the authorization of Congress, yet acting for the credibility and effectiveness of the former is chutzpah to the nth degree, while by-passing Congress makes the present exercise of the same character.

In the present case, we see Ruemmler to the rescue, the legalization of military attacks because regional instability and the use of chemical weapons affect “important national interests”—never mind, how the attacks might very well foster regional instability, and how concern over chemical weapons seems false in light of their use by American forces in Vietnam.

Obama, however, does not need legal memos from OLC because he increasingly employs humanitarian intervention as the catch-all answer to all objections to US interventions. (Between Rice and Samantha Power at the UN, who was abrupt and defiant in her recent speech there on the murder of children, he does not need a Greek chorus to sound the charge, although the administration’s propaganda blitz over the weekend should itself arouse suspicions that a Goebbels-like approach is meant to substitute for meaningful discussion and debate.) And with each of his insinuating remarks on the effeteness of the Security Council in not “enforcing international norms and international law,” he is also provocatively taking on Russia as, with its veto, the “barrier” to this goal. Let’s give the last word to Ms. Ruemmler: While attacking Syria “may not fit under a traditionally recognized legal basis under international law,” still it is ”justified and legitimate,” and not prohibited, due to the novel factors involved.

Yes, novel factor, an invocation we may hear in the future, each time presidential power becomes its own source of legitimation.

This article is dedicated to Gabriel Kolko, to whom the world Left owes so much for his research, writings, and social activism.

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.