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Collision of Two Worlds
Obama and Rouhani at the UN
by NORMAN POLLACK

Obama in his address to the United Nations, Sept. 24, treated the world to a display of “democratic” rhetorical flights which uncovered at the deepest levels America’s commitment to continued world hegemony and, related, the arrogance inhering in the ideology of exceptionalism. Intervention has become a God-ordained historical mission, for if it were not for the US, vacuums would open wide, especially in the Middle East, from which chaos and extremism would emerge and boil over. America is selfless in all things, striving only for global peace and harmony. Chalk up another free pass for Obama in a speech riddled with self-righteousness (his own and the nation’s) and glaring omissions of American practice, whether on intervention per se (in violation of the UN Charter), the use of chemical warfare (Agent Orange and napalm alone can be counted in the metric tons), deprivation of civil liberties, or paramilitary operations, directed to regime change.

What makes his UN appearance both significant and interesting is that Rouhani, the newly-elected president of Iran, was wise to his smoke and mirrors, and outright dishonesty, calling Obama’s bluff, e.g., on the human consequences of the embargo on Iran in which it is the people—a clear concept of legitimated violence—who suffer the most.

Since the press, as earlier with respect to Putin’s op. ed. in The Times, reported little of substance of Rouhani’s speech, also the 25th, several hours later than Obama’s, let me begin there first, because I believe it sets a standard—as did Putin, in his defense of international law—by which to analyze and judge that of Obama’s position hailed as a new approach to America’s role in the world. At times, it is difficult to distinguish the White House propaganda mill—the legacy of Axelrod—from that of the media for which it generates material.

Rouhani begins by differentiating the politics of fear and that of hope. Implicitly, although he does not say this, I sense here a wider meaning to which this differentiation can be assigned: the US, in the fear corner, much the remainder of the world, the hope corner, or more specifically, America as a declining power, while the hitherto regarded Third World an ascending force in world history. In sum, American unilateralism, and its refusal to base its conduct, restrain its military, or moderate its ideology, on behalf of mutual trust and common interests (both of which Rouhani singles out for praise as necessary goals for world peace), is leading to its isolation in the global community and hastening its decline as a global superpower.

Rouhani’s introductory remarks deserve quotation in full, with the above-differentiation perhaps in mind:

Our world today is replete with fear and hope; fear of war and hostile regional and global relations; fear of deadly confrontation of religious, ethnic and national identities; fear of institutionalization of violence and extremism; fear of poverty and destructive discrimination; fear of decay and destruction of life-sustaining resources; fear of disregard for human dignity and rights; and fear of neglect of morality. Alongside these fears, however, there are new hopes; the hope of universal acceptance by the people and the elites all across the globe of “yes” to peace and no to “war”; and the hope of preference of dialogue over conflict, and moderation over extremism.

I cannot pretend to be a sitting judge on the words of the speaker, their intent and veracity, except that with long experience on listening to and weighing the value of each word, I tend to form opinions as to their authenticity and the integrity of the speaker. I guess the phrase “institutionalization of violence and extremism” jumped out at me to anchor the passage, because marked by thoughtful observation. When we compare this with all of Obama’s speech, his own words are hollow and define the kind of formulaic appeals best suited to campaigns or the rationalization of policies pointing to the opposite.

Also to be noted in the passage, Rouhani has a conception of religion—the sensitive point, presumably to be avoided, in these discussions—in which he sees its importance as the conveyer of moral law, not as the source of “deadly confrontation,” but ideally, as compatible with, and wholly integrated into, a democratic society. Thus, he continues: “The realization of democracy consistent with religion and the peaceful transfer of executive power manifested that Iran is the anchor of stability in an otherwise ocean of regional instabilities.” This of course, as he later points out, is meant as the antithesis of, and answer to, Muslim-bashing, itself, he implies now and subsequently argues, being responsible for war and pervasive fear in the contemporary world. Hence: “The firm belief of our people and government in enduring peace, stability, tranquility, peaceful resolution of disputes and reliance on the ballot box as the basis of power, public acceptance and legitimacy, has indeed played a key role in creating such a safe environment.” (The phrase “public acceptance,” to me, takes the statement outside a context of political cant—but that is just a personal impression.)

Then comes pure gold. In my last CP article, before the events of the 24th, I used the phrase, “crunch-time of global politics,” sensing the significance of the national-political-military factors surrounding the events in Syria (and perhaps their repercussions for Iran, notably, if Obama had attacked Syria–still not ruled out–or Israel, Iran), a conclusion Rouhani also reached, and now states, at the UN. The passage’s sobering reality, in contrast to Obama’s and Netanyahu’s blithe assertion of power, distinguishes the heavyweights from the lightweights, intellectually and morally, and perhaps distinguishes ascendant and declining world currents and the supporters of each perspective:

The current critical period of transition in international relations is replete with dangers, albeit with unique opportunities. Any miscalculation of one’s position, and of course, of others, will bear historic damages; a mistake by one actor will have negative impact on all others. Vulnerability is now a global and indivisible phenomenon.” (Italics, mine)

Neocons will chuckle; humanitarian interventionists (of which the White House has an abundance) will stew; Obama, utterly oblivious to whatever stands in the way of American global hegemony, will look in the mirror, confident he can outsmart history, rationality, and moral decency, will march on—all while the clock continues to tick, alarm bells going off with the next intervention or so-called “surgical” strike. Rouhani sees clearly what most of us, those not blinded by the Exceptionalism-theme in the first place, still miss because our emphasis on continuities of American foreign policy inure us to the qualitative jumps in that continuity quite possibly before us: That this is a “period of transition in international relations”. Our blindness is due in no small measure to Obama’s own distinctive contribution to foreign policy, the liberalization of aggression, wherein even personally authorized targeted assassination passes muster as “humane interventionism.”

The disclosures of Manning and Snowden, revelations showing to the world America’s geostrategic ambitions and assumptions, and its underhanded relations with its “friends and allies,” from Germany to Brazil at the highest levels, and showing to Americans the extent to which domestic surveillance is now a key element in the encroachment upon civil liberties, partly to further those ambitions, partly to ensure accommodation to the militarization of capitalism as necessary to avoiding its stagnation and decline, are something of a wake-up call as to the seriousness of the state of international politics. So, Rouhani is ahead of the curve in this important regard. And he goes further—the media complimenting him on his tone (although snidely dismissive in general) because he doesn’t attack the US, when in fact his very next statement leaves no doubt about whom he has in mind: “At this sensitive juncture in the history of global relations, the age of zero-sum games is over, even though a few actors still tend to rely on archaic and deeply ineffective ways and means to preserve their superiority and domination. Militarism and the recourse to violent and military means to subjugate others are failed examples of the perpetuation of old ways in new circumstances.” (Italics, mine)

The new circumstances are a gradually decentralizing world power system; US unilateralism is no longer acceptable or even workable in light of rival centers of industrial-commercial-financial development at precisely the moment of American global overextension of its military posture and forces whilst sucking out its economic resources for domestic rebuilding. Leviathan’s innards are drying up, requiring, which Rouhani notes, as integral to maintaining hegemonic claims, ever greater reliance on force and violence:

Coercive economic and military policies and practices geared to the maintenance and preservation of old superiorities and dominations have been pursued in a conceptual mindset that negates peace, security, human dignity, and exalted human ideals. Ignoring differences between human societies and globalizing Western values as universal ones represent another manifestation of this conceptual mindset. Yet another cognitive model is the persistence of Cold War mentality and bi-polar division of the world into “superior us” and “inferior others.” Fanning fear and phobia around the emergence of new actors on the world scene is another. (Italics, mine—actually the entire passage deserves italics)

This is masterful social-science analysis. By that I don’t mean employment of “conceptual mindset,” but insights which seemingly typify the character of modern industrialism, as Weber, Parsons, Merton would have it, yet possessing added specificity perhaps uniquely applying to America. Hegemonic posture and/or aspirations eats away at democracy itself, resulting not only in “coercive economic and military policies and practices” simply to stay on top (or get a shot at that dubious honor), but also the comprehensive NEGATION of what democracy is or should be all about, including—the authenticity of his expression once again—“exalted human ideals.” He doesn’t stop there. Within a searing criticism of ethnocentrism (the bipolar division of the world into us and them), he brilliantly makes three related points, related because they reveal the psychodynamics going into ethnocentrism—and yielding what the Adorno study revealed a half-century ago, its core of authoritarianism.

First, the universalization of Western values, itself really the whole ball game with respect to America’s relations to much of the rest of the world (and even to be imposed on somewhat recalcitrant “friends and allies”) as the American Way, e.g., the equation of democracy with capitalism, the supremacy of property and the property right as the basis of legitimate social organization, and the acceptance—here Rouhani nails a point he develops later–of the two-tiered world, an amalgam, economically, of the trickle-down framework (based on extraction of wealth from the bottom) and market fundamentalism.

Second, the Cold War mentality, which goes beyond a bipolar global division (although it is also that) to signify the precise regurgitation of such tensions, now, China primarily in the cross-hairs, with Russia a secondary concern or target, and, arguably, counterterrorism the surrogate for anticommunism, i.e., the same mental patterns, also beyond mere ethnocentrism, to include demonization of the “enemy” and a geostrategic acceptance of the falling-domino theory. Rouhani does not say the foregoing, except for the generalized Cold War mentality, yet the traits he describes fits perfectly.

Third, separately stated, but interdependent, “ignoring differences between human societies” and “fanning fear and phobia around the emergence of new actors on the world scene” apply equally to the US confrontation with Islam as a whole (somehow, given American parochialism, “new actors”) and the treatment of Third World nations, to be blessed with our guidance and put down should the natives resist. This third feature of the conceptual mindset feeds nicely into humanitarian interventionism as a cloak for unmitigated exploitation, the exploiter preordained as both superior and ostensibly moral.

Rouhani’s presentation is airtight, for he sees in “such an environment” the increase of every sort of conflict, “governmental and non-governmental, religious, ethnic, and even racial violence,” all capable of embroiling the Great Powers, to which he adds: “The catastrophic impact of violent and extremist narratives should not—in fact, must not—be underestimated.” Then he comes to the immediate point, that of nonintervention, implicitly, a global proposition, but intended specifically for the Middle East: “In this context, the strategic violence, which is manifested in the efforts to deprive regional players from their natural domain of action, containment policies, regime change from outside, and the efforts towards redrawing of political borders and frontiers, is extremely dangerous and provocative.” He is describing the US record (without naming it) to a tee, referring to Israel as well.

There is much more, but I should like to bear down on his very next statement, where ethnocentrism is fleshed out in geopolitical terms which affect Iran equally with other nations similarly situated, as being defined either in the US sphere of influence or, by rights, subject to American guidance (both cases giving license for regime change and/or eliminating suspected terrorists). Here ethnocentrism breaks down into its harsher side, xenophobia, and also what Washington takes as its self-image, realpolitik, in this case, ideological rigidity—on behalf of capitalism—under a different name.

“The prevalent international political discourse,” he states, “depicts a civilized center surrounded by un-civilized peripheries.” (His auditors, I suspect, and much of the non-Western world outside, knew which nations went where.) Neither Marx nor Paul Baran could have said it better: “In this picture, the relation between the center of world power and the peripheries is hegemonic.” I’m sorry, but when I think of Obama’s stupefaction when it comes to the moral delineation of public policy, instead in a dither about such concerns as credibility and sending a message or simply occupied with hit lists and assassination, I weep for joy at one who penetrates the veils of doubletalk to illumine, as now, basic relations of power:

The discourse assigning the North the center stage and relegating the South to the periphery has led to the establishment of a monologue at the level of international relations. The creation of illusory identity distinctions and the current prevalent violent forms of xenophobia are the inevitable outcome of such a discourse. Propagandistic and unfounded faith-phobic, Islamo-phobic, Shia-phobic, and Iran-phobic discourses do indeed represent serious threats against world peace and human dignity.

The shoe is now on the other foot—those supposedly aggressed upon are the aggressors, xenophobic as both conviction and convenience (it’s hard to tell which is worse). The word monologue jumps out of the passage indicating the one-sided power relation, which confers the ability to defame, denounce, ultimately kill, the now ubiquitous Other—and at the same time exercise social control at home. Yet a final two sentences bring the thought squarely home: “The propagandistic discourse has assumed dangerous proportions through portrayal and inculcation of presumed imaginary threats. One such imaginary threat is the so-called ‘Iranian threat’—which has been employed as an excuse to justify a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades.” The litany of these “imaginary threats,” and the violence in putting them down, takes up much of the remainder of the speech, as when he refers to “structural violence,” such as the sanctions regime, as being “intrinsically inhumane and against peace.”

We turn now to Obama, his speech before the General Assembly earlier on the 24th, purportedly a new approach to America’s role in the world, yet couched in such manner as to yield little of substance and, on careful reading, still willing to bypass the UN with unilateral military action on its, and his, discretion. We are all familiar by now with the speech’s presumed high points, as found in Mark Landler’s NYT article of the 25th, “Obama Says He Will Pursue Diplomacy on Iran and Syria.” Not quite, but nice try. Several examples, before we look more closely: “The roadblocks may prove to be to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” Or this: “Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all. If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws. On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says.” If even the ambiguities expressed here, a nod to roadblocks, finger-pointing at the UN on its inability to act, yet—the obsession with credibility, the need to send a message—a possible breakthrough on chemical weapons (never once apologizing for America’s heavy use of the same), were a correct statement of the US position, there would be at least some prospect of change. But another quote, referring to the Middle East, puts a damper on reduction of military force as a foreign policy tenet: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests [Iranian nuclear policy, Syrian civil war, security of Israel, the last here being really first] in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.”

Thus far, we see a mixed bag, at best, grudging acceptance of diplomacy, but also the unquestioned right of involvement in the region, and, should things go not to America’s liking, the avowal of unilateral action which, given the setting of the speech, is a direct slap in the face of the Charter and international law. Here then is a brief examination of text, a lot easier task than with Rouhani because Obama is all surface, with little or no depth. Placate the audience—and the institution: “For most of recorded history, individual aspirations were subject to the whims of tyrants and empires…. The idea that nations and peoples could come together in peace to solve their disputes and advance a common prosperity seemed unimaginable.” Two world wars and nuclear weapons meant that “humanity could not survive the course it was on.” Ergo, the UN, “to resolve conflicts, enforce rules of behavior, and build habits of cooperation that would grow stronger over time.”

Then a shadow of doubt appears. Every generation faces “new and profound challenges, and this body continues to be tested.” He queries whether the international community could “squarely meet those challenges,” that is, “whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time.” Obama proceeds to take credit for surmounting the financial debacle, but sees the progress as “fragile and unequal,” with more work ahead; likewise, credit for ending a decade of war. This presumed foundation of success enables him to announce the Grand Departure, each and every detail of which is open to challenge:

For the United States, these new circumstances have meant shifting away from a perpetual war-footing. Beyond bringing our troops home, we have limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing, imminent threat to the United States where capture is not feasible, and there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties. We are transferring detainees to other countries and trying terrorists in courts of law, while working diligently to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And just as we reviewed how we deploy our extraordinary military capabilities in a way that lives up to our ideals, we have begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so as to properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies, with the privacy concerns that all people share. (Italics, mine)

If this were a mea culpa, I, and I’m sure much of the world, would be pleased, signaling a halt to targeted assassination, an end to monstrous defense appropriations and the distortions they produce in the everyday lives of countless millions, a closing of the prison that shamelessly denies habeas corpus rights to detainees (and has led, in their desperation, to hunger strikes), and not least, an ineradicable mark of authoritarianism in the program of massive surveillance. Proper balance means, not being caught, on this and on all else, wherein the spirit of government is to erect transparency into a principle of pure evil. What truly hurts, though, is the glib phrase, “in a way that lives up to our ideals,” similar to another pet phrase of his, after citing atrocities committed by others, “that’s not who we are,” the first of these coupled with “our extraordinary military capabilities,” and together, either “our ideals” sanction the foregoing practices, the vein of militarism running throughout (even as justification for surveillance), or, in fact, who we are, as a people, legitimates antidemocratic practice, in every case, drones included, as the key to national identity. Methinks he protesteth too much, selecting for commendation what the record demonstrates to be within the discomfort zone of war crimes—even when he claims there to be improvement in each. Nor, the rub, is the improvement shown to have been forthcoming. Surveillance is surveillance, from which much else flows in evaluating the policies, record, and veracity of POTUS.

Parenthetically,, Obama’s speech got off to an inauspicious start—which he, unlike most present, may not have noticed. For Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, came immediately before, and whether or not they shook hands I do not know—or care, because the symbolism here is that Rousseff, herself once imprisoned under the Colonels, canceled an official State visit to the US, something probably rarely occurring in the case of a head of state who does this, and certainly not when America is the host. Her reason for the cancellation, of course, was the NSA surveillance of her own personal communications—with no apology forthcoming. So much for “privacy concerns that all people share,” to recur to Obama’s statement, the violation of privacy matched by the violation—for surely eavesdropping on the Brazilian government was also involved—of international law.

There follows a recitation of problems in the world, from the terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Kenya to the Syrian civil war, the latter in which the “international community recognized the stakes early on, but our response has not matched the scale of the challenge.” He continues, not mentioning, however, America’s military assistance to the rebels—and here as elsewhere speaking of “the moderate opposition” as a way of rationalizing the assistance, while placing extremist elements in the coalition in a sort of limbo as though present but extraneous: “A peace process is still-born. America and others have worked to bolster the moderate opposition, but extremist groups have still taken root to exploit the crisis. Assad’s traditional allies have propped him up, citing principles of sovereignty to shield his regime.” Although he does not say, this is becoming a war, in part, of proxy armies representing larger interests. What he does say is that Assad used chemical weapons “in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people, including many children,” therefore setting the stage for US intervention, especially when and where the UN and other nations feared to tread.

Obama’s technique is to raise questions, but, the insinuation planted by them, he then turns elsewhere instead of answering them. He usually returns to the children, but never the children his own policies, such as signature strikes, are responsible for killing. The final question: “What is the role of the United Nations, and international law, in meeting cries for justice?” This takes gall for one who demonstrates contempt for both—and for “justice,” if by that we mean reversing the maldistribution of wealth that his own policies of deregulation and corporate favoritism have encouraged. Undeterred, Obama presses on with, first, the demand for a ban on using chemical weapons, claiming that his own willingness to launch a military attack on Syria forced the Security Council to act and, implicitly, for Putin and Russia to adopt a more cooperative attitude, and second, the definition of “America’s role in the world,” particularly US policy “towards the Middle East and North Africa,” which policy to hold “during the remainder of my presidency.”

The enumeration commences, the caption clause, as it were, being what we’ve already noted: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.” Even if the core interests were entirely selfless, which they are not, the power-orientation and correlative military force are, by international law, out of bounds, in this case, doubly so, because “secur[ing] these core interests in the region” is to arrogate to itself a presence there, as though mentally verging on a divine right since it is stated without self- doubt or compunction. Hence, “the free flow of energy”; dismantling “terrorist networks”; and, “not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.” A decent enough list, but one that is hardly complete, and on “the free flow of energy,” it cries out for details, just as, on dismantling “terrorist networks,” he claims the right to “take direct action,” and on eliminating “weapons of mass destruction” in the region, the complete silence with respect to Israel. But it is when Obama slips in coded language that I must take exception: [I]t is to our interest to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous; and will continue to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity.” (Italics, mine)

It may seem like nit-picking, but an earlier generation of historians of foreign policy would have picked out immediately the phrase “open markets” as part-and-parcel of hegemony, capitalist expansion in the form of the “imperialism of free trade,” and a compelling reason for the geopolitical penetration of the region. For Obama, the complete phrase rolls innocently from the tongue, democracy, human rights, and open markets being interchangeable if not indeed identical, as stand-ins for capitalism. As for the rest, he has on his agenda the advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (stacked by a two-state solution which leaves the status quo largely intact, therefore favoring Netanyahu’s conception of preconditions), engagement with Egypt (he does not condemn military atrocities and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood), and the potential for negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. All in all, disengagement from the region would be harmful for the region, by “creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. Bless us, for our selfless humanitarianism.

My New York Times Comment on the editorial (Sept. 25), “President Obama at the United Nations,” follows:

The question is not whether Obama “can implement a consistent, effective strategy to achieve his goals,” as the editorial states, but whether (a) the goals, as he outlines them here, are worth implementing, and (b) whether in fact he has even presented them honestly, or rather, taken emotional, well-worn diplomatic language to disguise the same old policies and programs of US global hegemony. Despite flowery language dressed as humane and democratic (the signature of Rhodes’ speechwriting for POTUS), we see no receding from the declared right of unilateral intervention, justified as in the Rice-Power addendum to Obama’s foreign policy, humanitarian interventionism–all, embarrassingly, given that he is addressing the General Assembly, through an explicit avowal of bypassing the UN when deemed necessary.

Nothing has changed–Obama’s militarism abroad and contempt for civil liberties at home have been the “consistent” record NYT neither mentions nor figures into the equation. By the latter I mean, if one took what Obama professes to oppose, say, violation of civil liberties, but practices at home, e.g., massive surveillance, use of Espionage Act, etc., there would be grounds for some other power or the international community to invade America! He dares again to use the term “exceptional,” as though, although he does not admit, it is intended to confer license to create a National-Security State concomitant with the erosion of the social safety net.

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.