From Obama to the PRTs in Iraq

“We are change.”

With that simple three-word rallying cry, Barack Obama claims to transcend all the problems of Washington’s entrenched status quo and bridge all the divisions segmenting American society. Obama’s website invites us join the “movement,” not a campaign to get him elected but a movement to change the world.

But what kind of movement is behind Obama? They want us to think that they are a grass roots organization of neighbors, friends and family. But something just isn’t right. They aren’t concerned community members against the disease afflicting our economy, culture and government. They aren’t even the PTA trying to fix your kid’s school.

Obama’s “activists” and “organizers” are trained (and sometimes even paid) to appear as if they are part of some grassroots initiative when, in fact, they are representatives of some distant institution.  In this case it’s a centrally directed, national, political machine trying to sell an image.

In terms of tactics and management Obama’s “movement” is no different than Clinton and McCain’s campaigns. Just like their rivals, Obama’s cadres coming to a doorstop or intersection near you have been prepped in their talking points.

Many of his supports genuinely desire real change but the sad truth is that Barack Obama only wants change of very limited scope. In his humbly titled Audacity of Hope, he describes himself as “progressive” working for “social and economic justice.”

But actions speak louder than empty platitudes.

One of his more prominent supporters includes David Brooks, a Republic columnist for the New York Times. Brooks dubbed Obama a “Hamiltonian” and a believer “in limited government” and “free trade.” He went on praise Obama for “a mentality formed by globalization not SDS.”

Brooks honest appraisal of Obama fits the would-be-President’s positions. In the 1990s, as an Illinois State Senator, he argued for universal healthcare. Now he advocates for “market-based” health care reform.

Obama’s mainstream neoliberalism leads him to support the most destructive kinds of free-market fetishism.  He voted against an amendment to a 2005 bankruptcy bill that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. Like most American politicians, he was just dancing for his donors. According to Ken Silverstein’s  Harper’s article, “Barack Obama Inc.,” “Finanical firms constitute Obama’s second biggest single bloc of donors.” Silverstein’s article closed with a particularly damning revelation:

“On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”

Economic neoliberalism is only one facet of the bipartisan consensus Obama dutifully upholds. He embraces underlining assumptions of the “War on Terror,” and the entrenched structures of militarism that underlie it.

He opposed Senator Russ Feingols move to censure the Bush Administration for illegal wiretaps; he distanced himself from fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin when Durbin attacked the torture and indefinite detention taking place Guantanamo Bay; he even lent his support to the Joe Liberman, when Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, challenged the saber-rattling Senator in the primaries leading up to 2006 elections.

Obama is itching to have his turn as an Imperial President: he’s already claimed the executive privilege to order a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran and covert operations in Pakistan.

Altogether, Obama is more likely to please those at the Council on Foreign Relations than the World Social Forum.

So where does his support come from? Some his supporters do want his slightly more restrained brand of the bipartisan consensus over the current ultra-right rendering in the White House. But many others sincerely believe that an Obama administration would cure all the country’s ills.  Why? Americans are a literate, intelligence people. Why have so many us fall for lofty rhetoric and empty platitudes?

The answer lies in basic manipulation of language and larger strategy of lies, and deception. Obama is running for President but he’s selling it as if he’s the leader of a great social movement out to save the world. Like the covert warriors he wants to set loose in Pakisan, Obama’s campaign runs psychological warfare at the highest level.

He’s backed by advertisers but not writers, graphic designers but not artists, jingles but not music. Psywar, not culture.

The Obama “movement” pretends to care deeply to your concerns but they only really want our votes, energy and the political control of our minds. They want you join their cult(ure), read their media, and believe in change and greatness of the leader. Join “the movement;” don’t forget your donations, we need to your contribution to keep up the momentum.

It’s a scam, a political campaign masquerading like something genuine and human. Real social movements are not centrally controlled; they have a scope wider than getting someone elected. If anything, it’s a personality cult, not a social movement.

Genuine social movements start from free choices. People have ideas, they convince others and, with their collective power, the charisma of leaders and cultural producers, they affect change. They can build institutions and reinvigorate old ones to continue and maintain their work.

It’s the reverse process that doesn’t work. Institutions take on their own life and at certain point become monsters of self-aggrandizement. They try to draw people in and sap their energy to reinvigorate the rotted edifices of corrupt sites of power.  Here Obama becomes a marketable piece of charisma, perhaps attractive enough to garner the Democratic Party the support necessary to win the White House.

Carefully selected soundbites, a noble stare, and a thronging personality cult may mask Obama’s vacuous opportunism, corporate sponsors and decidedly neoliberal policies but they will do little to fundamentally change the generalized crisis gripping the United States and the rest of the planet. Obama may will win the Presidency but he won’t change anything of substance

Many in “the movement” will be disappointed.

Many Afghans and Iraqis already know the failures of the American psywar model of “social movements.” In Afghanistan and Iraq, the cadres going door to door don’t have clipboards and bumper stickers. They have machine guns and surveillance equipment. They’re the “organizers” and “activists” charged with the U.S. psywar mission to build a client state in Iraq and Afganistan.

These psywar cadres are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, 50-100 member teams of civilian and military specialists. They are the alleged panacea for security, good governance and economic development. The program in started in Afghanistan in 2002, where 12 US-led teams 14-NATO teams now operate. In Iraq, the program began in 2005, and there are now 13 US-led teams.

American teams are comprised of a military police unit, a psychological operations unit, an explosive ordinance/demining unit, an intelligence team, medics, a force protection unit, and administrative and support personnel. The entire logic of counterinsurgency—the unity of civil and military roles, economic development, and above all psywar—encapsulated into one mobile force.

Military and intelligence specialists to track down and kill the bad guys, and the civilian officials re-build the up the schools, roads and hospitals and give micro-grants to jump start small businesses. The psywar unit hands talk to “the people” and convince them in the genius of the American system.

It sounds like pleasantly and downright civil thing to do. The very least really an occupying power could do an independent country they invaded and “liberated” in the name of democracy.

PRT’s psywar project is not just directed at the Iraqi population however. On  March 13, 2008, President Bush Participated in  a video teleconference with PRT team leaders serving in Afghanistan.

A psywar coup against the American public, the media spectacle made President Bush appear as if he was a true theorist in the pseudo-science of counterinsurgency, while managing to hold on to his folksy Texan charm.

“Effective counterinsurgency strategy will require more than just military action. It requires a military-civilian interface,” the President explained, “and so if you look on the screen you see brave and courageous Americans in uniform and not in uniform, because they’re a part of this strategy…the folks are attempting to fight corruption at the local level so that the local citizens are able to have a positive outlook about their government. We’re also working to educate people, build roads, provide good health care. And our fellow citizens are there on the ground in some difficult circumstances, all aiming to help this young democracy survive and thrive. And there are difficulties, but we’re also making progress.”

At a similar teleconference earlier, in January 8, 2008, President Bush credited the PRTs with producing a safe Iraq, “Life is returning to normal in communities across Iraq,” he proclaimed, “with children back in school and shops reopening and markets bustling with commerce…. The PRT leaders have gotten to know the Iraqi people. They understand the vast majority of Iraqis want to live in freedom and peace; that’s what they know. You know why? Because the citizens tell them just that. They’re helping give ordinary Iraqis confidence by rejecting the extremists and reconciling with one another so they can claim their place in a free Iraq and build a better life for their families.”

In practice, it hasn’t worked out as advertised. Both the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee condemned the PRTs as failures. The SIGIR report from October of 2007 concluded the PRT have “shown little economic development, rule of law and political reconciliation.”

In April of 2008, the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee issued found the program lacks “Strategic guidance and oversight” and “clearly defined PRT objectives and milestones for achieving lagers operational and strategic goals.”

Outside of the sterile policyspeak of Washington’s officialdom, it’s clear the program is failing. Mohammed Mahri’i an Iraqi journalist, was direct on the subject: the “reconstruction teams are invisible and I wish they could show me one inch above ground that they built.”

Maki al-Nazzal, another Iraqi journalist, sees through the psywar. “Bush and his heroes, Bremer, Rumsfeld and now Petraeus always lied to their people and the world about Iraq. U.S. soldiers are getting killed on a daily basis and so are Iraqi army and police officers. The infrastructure is destroyed. In a country that used to feed much of Arab world, starvation is the norm.”

Like Obama’s “movement” the PRTs are frauds. Psywarriors act for dead and dying institutions, the Frankenstein monster that is the Democratic Party or the stillborn Iraqi government.

Real social movements are made of dynamic assemblages of social forces that one person, group or institution can control. They compete, conflict and cooperate. Real change emerges from the chaos of many overlapping visions.

The American psywarriors at home and abroad hope that we will mistake the spirit for the forms. They offer only a media mirage of democracy development, and a good life. But empty words are no replacement for genuine commitments. Mirages vanish and leave us dead in the desert (for Iraqis and Afghans this is not a metaphor; its reality).

The spirit of real movements never die. Guard against the psywarriors and keeping building.

BRENDAN McQUADE is a graduate of Hampshire College. He is about to start work toward a PhD in sociology at SUNY-Binghamton. He can be reached at:

Obama, Barack, The Audacity of Hope.  Crown, 2006

Brooks, David. “Run, Barack, Run,” The New York Times, 10/19/06

Street, Paul “The Obama Illusion” Z Magazine, 2/1/07.

Ken Sliversein “Barack Obama, Inc.” Hapers, November, 2006

The Office of the Press Secretary. “President Bush Participates in Video Teleconference with Afghanistan Provincial Reconstruction Team Leaders and Brigade Combat Commanders,” 3/13/08.

Office of the Press Secretary. “President Bush Participates in Video Teleconference with Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Team Leaders and Brigade Combat Commanders,” 1/8/08.

Glanz, James. “Head of Reconstruction Teams in Iraq Reports Little Progress Throughout the Country.”  The New York Times, 10/19/07.

DeYoung, Karen. “US Effort to Rebuild From War Criticized.” 4/18/08.

Jamail, Dahr, “Missing Voices in the Iraq Debate”, 1/27/08.



Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of Pacifying the Homeland.