Obama’s legacy can be summed up in two words: targeted assassination. We know that drone strikes continue, Pakistan giving way to greater emphasis on Yemen, of which there were several in the last two weeks, killing four presumed operatives of the al Qaeda affiliate, and which had some bearing on the intercepted communications between the al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and the leader of AQAP, Nasir ul-Wuhayshi, calling for an attack on US interests in the region. Frankly, on its face, given the vast territory thought to be involved, the amorphousness of the purported threat (our government is in the habit of not leveling with us) suggests sufficiently imprecise content as either to question veracity of the whole event or recognition that, via the dynamics of blowback, it is next to impossible for defensive action.
The American presence in the region, we are now reminded, is everywhere, exposed, and in all probability resented. The interception, claimed to foreshadow an al-Qaeda mobilization and attack of catastrophic proportions, the most alarming direct alert since 9/11, has resulted in embassy closings, the airlift out of diplomatic personnel, a global warning to US travelers—possible overreaction, and in any case America perplexed and in a state of retreat.
One can be pardoned for initially thinking, the timing is significant because, with growing criticism of NSA surveillance, the need for obfuscation was great, a pattern not unknown in White House practice, to which Obama, in every policy area, has proven adept, when it became apparent that the betrayal of principle—from intervention to health care to business and banking regulation—necessitated less stonewalling than simply, as in the National Socialist formula of the 1930s, “divert the gaze of the masses,” that is, change the subject, tighten the screws, press the loyalty button, keep Americans on their toes, if not scared witless then at least willing to acquiesce in the excesses of counterterrorism, itself shorthand for State surveillance of its own people to check any tendencies toward radicalism and the questioning of authority. Tweak the situation in Yemen, earn bushels of points for repression and thought control at home.
It would be hard to separate the embassy closings from the stimulation of heightened tensions which create a political-ideological environment for more of the same—uncritically accepted: intervention, assassination, heavy defense expenditures fused with an increasingly dangerous global geopolitical strategy. I find this entirely plausible, coming from an administration shrouded in secrecy, encased in deception, and, for these reasons, devious to a fault. In my informal tally: one-third of the explanation for the current impasse.
Equally important in explanatory value is the framework in which this geopolitical strategy operates, the assumptions driving national-security policies, a global framework of traditional US pursuits brought to a higher (i.e., more lethal) stage of international politics. Obama is neither genius nor innovator, merely one, at this transitional point in the nation’s history, from the standpoint of the international system (unilateral American dominance, always an uphill struggle, recedes with the rise of a multipolar complex and Third World nations coming of industrial age) and the structure of capitalism itself (a qualitative leap to an unquestioned monopoly-capital stage, in which its financialization and militarization become prominent characteristics), who appreciates, or pretends to, the need for intensifying the policies of his predecessors to be of greater service to an integrated Business-Government State.
I say “pretends to” because he essentially works from the gut, without the intellectual and technical equipment, devoted to broad established principles, almost truisms, in the historical development of policy: the steadiness of capitalism at home and abroad as the criterion of economic legitimacy, counterrevolution as the sheet anchor of foreign policy, government secrecy to facilitate the implementation of the foregoing, as in deregulation in the domestic sphere, intervention, the foreign sphere, all the while giving increasing attention to new modes of warfare consistent with the already enormous build-up of armed forces and modernization of the nuclear arsenal. Not bad, for a beginner, if in fact he be that, for a core of reaction is apparent from the perversion of societal-welfare policies and programs, leading naturally and almost instinctively for Obama to emulate the hierarchical-militaristic predisposition and political-economic perspective of ruling groups.
Why the concentrated presence of the United States, as per this impending threat, in North Africa and the Middle East? In addition to an Israel-centric military-diplomatic commitment, which necessarily is to embroil America in intraregional power struggles and serve as back-up for Israeli international policies of support for dictatorships and conservative governments in an ideological paradigm of US-Israel mutual-security protection, and the more familiar matter, the treatment of the Palestinians, as quite possibly the prime reason for jihadism, hostility to the West, and, in Islamic eyes, the expression of imperialism in microcosm, xenophobic, insulting, etc., there is also, beyond Israel, American-defined priorities for maintaining its regional presence in the area, which in geopolitical terms is a decisive crossroads for the establishment of a sphere of influence having multiple purposes and functions.
As in the major airfield and drone base in Djibouti, the US seeks a wide swath of intensive coverage, readily accessible, which, in the large picture means a military-oriented armed-stabilization not only of the self-evident oil supply on advantageous terms, but also a selfsame stabilization operating in all directions, the Horn of Africa, Italy and southeastern Europe, the Near and Middle East, protected sea routes, having as its focus, a broadly-conceived counterrevolutionary stand throughout the area (with consequences for European and global military and diplomatic alliances) thence, the foundation in place, successive encroachments eastward, Iran, Afghanistan, most basic of all, the encirclement, containment, and isolation of China.
In this light, Yemen is a convenience, a pretext, an opportunity for executing the western side of a pincer movement, part of the double military-strategic envelopment of China, Obama’s “pivot” or Pacific-first strategy, in which resources, notably naval and air power, are being relocated to the Pacific area itself representing the eastern side of the pincer movement. The world is fast learning of Obama’s obsession with China as the new superpower on the block, to be taken down several pegs. Here Islam is secondary or even peripheral to the war-games, hegemonic-craving national-security culture of American policy makers, with Obama serving as their head.
In the largest context, China itself has been subsumed into the mentality of permanent war as integral to American development and survival, the clear resumption, if it ever went away, of a Cold War vision of world politics and economics, directed primarily to a new enemy, original thought processes still intact, and possessing utility for the domestication of society at home, in the form of submission to authority as the American Way of Life.
The remainder, what I am calling the depravity of government, follows implicitly from the recondite motives of government, particularly as harnessed to a global hegemonic impulse which is itself driven by the stage of mature capitalism in which America finds itself. The system, here an interpenetrated structure of government and business, or if one prefers, the State and Capitalism in systemic alliance, has led to a desensitization of the political-economic-military elites to the violence and destruction they’ve wrought in the world, easy for them to miss given their absorption into the world of power, the weapons they’ve chosen, the punitive attitude needed to buttress their self-righteousness and move in for the kill.
Desensitization above has as its complement depersonalization below, elites’ knowledge—to which they have not been incidental participants in creating—that opposition, even when it comes to the commission of war crimes, is and will continue to be token, given the apathy of the American people as a result of structural-cultural pressures toward false consciousness, assisted on an intangible but still psychologically intimidating level, by the possession of vast military power and resources, the more out of sight the better in telegraphing the message of unreserved strength awaiting potential use if needed. A silent Damoclean sword hangs above America, reminding citizens of their essential powerlessness (the message’s corollary) and giving further meaning to depersonalization as, personal dependence of the individual sinks in, an invitation to purge oneself in the splash of patriotism and, with that, the further invitation to identify actively with all things military, including habits to be incorporated into civilian life: marching lockstep to a single drummer’s beat—POTUS, with supporting cast three deep. The existence of the mushroom cloud for scenic background doesn’t hurt either.
From the foregoing, the successful—at least to now—domestication of the American people, as though cows led out to pasture, one moves outward to what I can only term, the preliminaries—carried quite far—to American fascism, not, however, as the spouting of fringe groups and unbalanced billionaires, but mainstream structural-economic development presided over by the leadership of the decisive sectors of power, which, in addition to the customary composition of ruling groups (again, government-business interpenetration), now the military as well.
Here we find secrecy as the negation of democratic government, surveillance, the negation of privacy and civil liberties, rampant Executive power (skillfully covered over by liberal-appearing rhetoric), the negation of Constitutional principles and the rule of law, a State that treats its people as morons who do not deserve self-rule, the belittling of those who seek what had once been a prerequisite of democracy, now all but forgotten: transparency, applicable across the board, courts forbidden to keep their decisions secret, regulatory agencies which actually regulate, and do so in the public interest, a president who is truthful, granted, old-fashioned out-of-style societal verities, the absence of which, readily recognized by the public, leading to a cynicism vibrating as one with the leadership that countenances everything that the National-Security Fortress-America State enacts and does, armed as it is with the state-secrets doctrine, an FBI-CIA apprehensiveness about dissent, and now, displaying great initiative as Obama’s new toy, after JSOC and DOJ, the National Security Agency.
What has this to do with Yemen and embassy closings? America would not be currently on the spot if it did not put itself there. Was the al Qaeda threat in response to the killing of four putative terrorists, or is something more involved, specifically, the hegemonic framework and its legitimation of violence as a total US posture, whose effects reach down into the lives of any who stand in the way of American goals of world leadership?
The situation in Yemen today helps to explain the embassy closings. The life of one child, shrunken, turning yellow, as life slips away because of a missile fired from an American drone, yes, it takes only one, to see the psychopathological dimensions of war, war fought for national prestige and power (and that of its business system), serves as the indictment for war crimes, the indictment of Obama’s cold-bloodedness, for it is he who bears responsibility for authorizing drone strikes (many of which he personally selects), the much-praised “cool” which possesses the coldness of the morgue slab on which some of his victims lay. They are the lucky ones, descriptions of victims’ fate usually find the individual vaporized or reduced to a blood spat. These are facts well-known outside the United States, less so within—or simply ignored therein.
On the night of August 6, the BBC, ordinarily not critical of the US, and even here not intentionally so, had a segment of its tv news showing the destruction of Yemini areas struck by American drones—the devastation widespread, and, as part of the coverage, interviewed two Yemini men on the spot whose statements were simultaneously translated. The first interviewee, about forty, a crowd around him, began: “Al Qaeda is responsible for this [destruction], and those that fund them.” Whether or not he was being tactful at first, he then immediately added, “But also the drones, they are killing our people, killing our children and destroying our honor.” Then, in a remark, wise beyond measure, that speaks volumes about why the terror, why the threats, why the hostility toward America, why the perception of evil, this man says: “The drones don’t differentiate between people. They just kill.” (Italics, mine) Already one begins to suspect the official report about the killing of al Qaeda militants, as explanation for issuing the threat. We’ve seen from the Stanford-NYU law schools’ report on civilian casualties, compiled by members of their combined faculties, some of whom gathered testimony in the field, that drone strikes have been directed at funerals (mourners of a supposed terrorist, official reasoning goes, must themselves be terrorists) and first responders (those who come to the aid of the victims, and therefore terrorist sympathizers).
It was the second interviewee, the father of two children, sitting alone, in mourning, whose anguished voice compelled me to write this article. First, we hear the reporter (paraphrased): A man and his two children outside a health clinic–where they had sought shelter–hit by an American drone strike; they then ran to a school and hid in the basement. The school was hit too. Now the father spoke: “It was as if everyone was burning. It was all dust. When the smoke cleared, I saw that my son’s leg was bleeding. And my daughter was hit on the back of the head.” Reporter: “He carried his children out. His son survived, but his 8 year old daughter BLED TO DEATH.” (Italics, caps., mine) Father: “As she bled, she went yellow. She actually started to shrink in my arms.” Is there any wonder, the embassy closings? The reporter concluded the segment: “President Obama has said that drone strikes kill far fewer civilians than conventional bombs or ground operations.” Cold-blooded, arrogant, the slab in the morgue is the Equator compared with the moral vacuum in which he operates.
America in Yemen, and judging from the number of closings, elsewhere in the region, is in retreat, I think, deservedly so. There is little public discussion of drone warfare, the desensitization above, the depersonalization below, with a dose of bread and circuses, like in Roman times, to keep the slaughter going. Liberals/progressives compartment reality, seeing what they choose to (even then, as in health care, regulation, conservation, policy-on-policy, erroneously), looking aside from the rest, including now, with surveillance, the clear makings of a Police State (itself first-cousin to the National-Security State). But it is that eight-year-old girl, bleeding to death in her father’s arms, who, looking down from Heaven, knows America for what it is rapidly becoming, and has the last word. Cruelty, sadism, Fascism on the threshold, all of the above, with drone warfare defining the head, heart, conscience of us all.
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/AK Press in the fall of 2013.