Obama’s West Point speech (May 28) now behind us, it is possible to take stock of what the White House hails as an epoch-making pronouncement of change in American foreign policy, but actually is a mere propaganda blip on the historical screen designed to answer a raucous, belligerent, intemperate Right calling for unilateral global dominance through primarily military means, and an alleged Left that, if anything has been passive, noncritical, without substantive alternatives, ideologically trapped by the lesser-of-two-evils argument offering nowhere else to go—and therefore, despite projecting a mythic radicalism in order to assert his centrism, he does not even bother to address. The speech becomes a verbal exercise to give the appearance of change while pursuing the selfsame Rightist policies he feigns to have transcended, but reducing the raucousness by several decibels.
Obama personifies Reaction in postmodern dress. His speech is a self-advertisement for greatness perhaps hoping to cash-in on George C. Marshall’s Harvard commencement address of 1947 announcing the Marshall Plan, so high have aides and the press touted its significance, as in Peter Baker’s New York Times article (May 29) entitled, “Rebutting Critics, Obama Seeks Higher Bar for Military Action.” In fact, nothing has changed, just the rhetoric (for which we most probably must thank Ben Rhodes, who in a similar vein depicted Obama the man of peace in the earlier Cairo speech dedicated to a rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim peoples. Nothing came of that, nothing will come of this, because both are prevarications, the West Point case not even rising to a promise of change so much as a repackaging of current policy through offering qualifications not easily detected when one starts by offering Obama a free pass and sees what one wants to see.
The sleight-of-hand becomes obvious when one states the fuller posture of US foreign policy, a context which makes peace impossible to achieve. Raise the bar higher, where the conflict is inconsequential, drop the bar altogether when it comes to China and Russia, a condition, because representing a renewal of the Cold War (which itself, in reality, never ended), that vitiates by the enormity of the risk-taking the totality of the policy framework. Casual use of the term “leadership,” as though divinely bestowed, is so frequently invoked in Obama’s speech that its correlates no longer have to be identified: the right to guide the world structure (primarily, capitalism alone an acceptable system); counterrevolution, the practical means of its achievement; intervention, regime change, espionage, subversion, paramilitary operations, the nuts-and-bolts of maintaining political-economic-ideological supremacy.
How expect peace when everything in the US policy arsenal works against it, particularly the complete lack of transparency in government, and interrelated, the drive to achieve the massive surveillance of the American public, now indeed consummated, a hog-tied public ripe for the pounding home of the state of false consciousness and consequent societal blindness to foreign aggression and adventurism? Obama may claim that, as here, he wants to avoid a military commitment to rebel forces in Syria (not, however, fastidious about arming them and pressing for regime change), but that counts for little, and certainly not a new doctrine, the so-called middle course between isolationism and full-scale war, when, toward China, his Pacific-first strategy entails the relocation of large-scale naval forces, including carrier groups, long-range aircraft adapted to nuclear war, and other “assets” shifted to the region, combined with firming up military alliances, executing joint maneuvers, and, seemingly unrelated, but of course not, the creation of the TransPacific Partnership, here the militarization of trading, tariff, and investment (so because supplementing the main thrust of the policy framework), a confrontation, big time, for the purpose of encircling, containing, and ultimately isolating China.
No evidence whatsoever about a policy-transformation, nor, for Russia, the same, Ukraine being the plaything of US policy, as in having actively shared in engineering the coup that overthrew the legally constituted government, knowingly working with fascist-oriented groups to that end, and, like China, consciously seeking confrontation, for now, through the successful placement of NATO troops on the Russian border. The speech has nothing to say about these developments, studiously ignores them, so that “leadership” becomes a benign abstraction. Too, there is no reference to domestic surveillance and foreign eavesdropping, nor to cyberwarfare—again, factors of sufficient significance as to deny claims a transformation is occurring. Even the most blatant of Obama’s bag of tricks, his personally authorized campaign of drone assassination, should make one suspicious of his peace pronouncements, a high-tech fascination if not amusement in which the victim has been vaporized halfway around the world.
He criticizes “overreach,” yet is this anything but? The political-ideological spectrum, the product of bipartisan agreement and practice, has shifted so far to the Right, that the record he has compiled can be deemed centrist—though, in truth, bordering on, if not fully there yet, fascism. One searches the speech in vain for evidence of drawing back, even the desire to draw back, from staggering military budgets, that and the foregoing obscured by the mere blathering of peace, and the implied threat that absent American “leadership” the world would be subject to barbarism, destruction, chaos. If anything, terrorism is larger in scope and range than ever, decentralized, warranting ever greater vigilance (read: permanent war preparation, abrogation of civil liberties), the bar here dropping several notches. The performance of Obama, a consummate showmanship, is positively beguiling, the discrepancy between word and deed, more so because he gets away with it.
One reason: an intact continuity of Cold War sentiment dating back decades, succumbed to on all sides, including the labor movement, so that under changing historical circumstances the persistence of the deep-lying anticommunism, despite what are now multiple adversaries (themselves adopting capitalistic features) and therefore shifting ideological ground from the original, is still internalized in the American mindset with the result that it becomes serviceable for the next stage utilized to continue US hegemony. Anticommunism has become transmuted into counterterrorism, yet it contains all of the ideological and emotional baggage carried over from the former. America requires an enemy, to keep its own house in order. The old one starting to wear thin, we now have a new one—and the expansion of institutional mechanisms to surmount it, e.g., the blanket surveillance of the American people to prevent dissent.
In his address before the 1,064 graduating cadets in dress whites, Obama’s declaration of change leads to its negation, the escalation of war-provoking policies and their military implementation currently in force. The graduating cadets will, as duly commissioned officers, take their place on the ramparts of Fortress America, protecting the homeland, except that the best defense is reckoned to be an aggressive offense. They will soon find themselves in far-flung places, assisted by CIA-JSOC paramilitary forces and “private contractors” of the Blackwater-type, mercenaries (a means of lowering the count of assigned combat troops) under changing logos. Mission crawl and mission denial become one.
Obama’s speech is something new in the books, neither Woodrow Wilson’s pious, inflated rhetoric in which the blade of the sword flashes the light of heaven, nor FDR’s plainspoken reassurance of victory, but here a purposeful deflation of geostrategic planning and ambition in order to hide what comes close to being a passion for world conquest. At best (or worst) we see an assembled cast—really, a unified government, the three branches, the two parties, differences, notwithstanding rhetoric, encompassing a very small ideological spectrum, its boundaries defined by advanced-capitalism, militarism, expansion– that I would characterize, albeit harshly, missionaries of nihilism, the more so the closer to Obama. With Team Obama still including Brennan, Rice, Power, Rhodes, Clapper, several tiers of NSA, CIA, FBI, JSOC, Chiefs of Staff, and Pentagon (I beg forgiveness if I’ve omitted some, whether individuals or agencies—one of my favorites, SSO, in the bowels of NSA), how even dream, much less expect, the West Point speech to signify a change of course?
Missionaries of nihilism, true believers in the magical powers of government remoteness and deception, in which, if our troops (he begins the speech by shedding tears over four cadets from Class of ’09, when first he spoke at West Point, who are no longer with us, yet nary a sigh when sending thousands more service personnel to their deaths, and far more civilians, in wholly illegal actions tantamount to—if he were not POTUS—war crimes) are cannon fodder, our people have become intellectual, or better yet, ideological, fodder, meant to be deceived, because deception is placed in the service of hegemony, of which there is no more fitting aspiration for a nation to maintain. For that is what the speech is about: deception in the service of hegemony, hegemony by this point in American foreign policy becoming the surrogate for or vehicle to achieve the reification of capitalism, really a twofold process of reification, first of hegemony, as a thing in itself, no questions asked, loyalty demanded, and then capitalism, a thing in itself, again same conditions.
We speak of national honor, and here, the manifold duties and obligations of leadership, leadership itself never questioned, when militarism, the specter energizing the whole framework of thought (or ideology) provides its implementation, when what we mean—our mentalset bogged down in or clogged up by coded signifiers—is the active preservation of a world system under America’s aegis that includes but carries beyond traditional purposes of imperialism, beginning with market penetration and security for global investment, but takes on an increasingly razor-sharp political-economic-ideological program of counterrevolution to ensure the success of the whole. Alternative patterns of systemic development must be and thereby are ruled out, as challenges which might upset America’s complacency about its Exceptionalism and impede its progress in world trade. Whether as values, lifestyle, or the temerity of nations to go their own way, the rule is, one way, our way, or else the highway, the latter a ticket to destruction or structural oblivion. For the former but essentially both, read: shock-and-awe, regime change, intervention, isolation, containment, economic retaliation, for as the war-mind gets busy, all manner of responses are possible.
Nominally, for Obama, as in Baker’s aforementioned article, the higher bar to military action provides greater latitude for selective conflict. It does not change the fact of and presumed necessity for military action itself–military action that is winnable, quick, decisive, and based entirely on America’s freedom of choice, determined case-by-case, as interpreted through an ever-expanding standard, enunciated in the speech, but neglected as to import by the media, of the national interest. China and Russia, all bets are off, the bar is moveable, dropping steadily downward; meanwhile, American militarism grinds on, Syria (to which he gives attention) fast becoming the stand-in for Ukraine, and we as a nation now divided between those who believe Obama on peace and social justice and those who want him to go further, with few Left voices to call his bluff and expose his treachery. For that would be considered unpatriotic and irresponsible, the ideological pressures seemingly too strong to withstand. Besides, the reasoning goes, look how bad the Republicans are; be thankful for what we have. False consciousness obliterates class—or any other—understanding, one more reason not be blown away by the West Point speech.
Instead, pronounce curses on what we have, what I might summarize as: The blanket of surveillance/the surveillance blanket. On the first, surveillance of the American people (and for Keith Alexander of NSA, why not the world?) has reached a point whereby privacy has been effectively extinguished. That is fascism, slice it, dice it, any way you wish. Democracy, absent privacy, is a hollow shell, its foreign policy, accordingly, and in practice, whatever ruling groups want and how they interpret the systemic imperatives of the framework to which they owe their status and privileges. A democratic society does not SPY on its own people—or any others. Read Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place To Hide” and be amazed at the extent of the surveillance, the number of programs trotted out by NSA, like PRISM, BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, STORMBREW, a library of acronyms from hell that continues on, stretching the alphabet to its limits, and PROJECT BULLRUN, EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE, MUSCULAR, OLYMPIA…need I continue?
The young patriarch of nihilism wisely looks on, surrounded by gems of humanity like Michael Hayden, whom I neglected to mention (even Brennan, waterboarding stalwart, seems eclipsed by the war hawks of Team Obama), now, at West Point, himself the window dressing for an alleged new, transformative vision of American foreign policy. It plays well there, because few in the nation believe him in the first place. Americans reject peace. Our political sanity depends on the Constant Enemy at the gates—the permanent threat, so that we can selectively scapegoat in such an atmosphere anyone whom we wish, this as prelude to and ratifying condition for, above all, keeping ourselves in line, lest we grow restive over consumerism and military conquest. The West Point speech is an integral part of the bread-and-circuses, its equivalent, the music of sweet patriotism, we thrive on to ward off occasional self-doubts about the splendors of American civilization and the costs of maintaining it and keeping it on top.
All of the foregoing feeds into what I would term the liberalization of militarism. Nothing is changed, only rendered the more delicious: e.g., humanitarian interventionism (implied in the speech, a racket to justify every US military action and/or power play since the days of the Open Door—late 19th century); y Exceptionalism, (also implied there, with its compelling message collective moral superiority); and the Obama pep-talk riff on the affirmative spirit, the guaranteed feel-good vibes found in a key phrase of the speech, “America Must Always Lead,” hardly the formula for a change in the direction taken by foreign policy. As the rhetoric rises, the curtain draws down on human freedom at home and abroad, the latter especially relevant here as there is no sign of favoring the mutual renunciation of force and a willingness on America’s part, quite the opposite, to accept an end to its unilateralism.
To return then to the blanket of surveillance/surveillance blanket formulation, one sees that the former renders impossible, by definition, the existence of a free people. And for ruling groups, under whatever formal or informal arrangement (for they do, indeed, exist!), that is as it should be, in practice as well as logic, if they are to continue, as now, to act with impunity in America. With the blanket of surveillance, then, also comes the surveillance blanket, the comfy feeling of our political-economic-military elites that not only can they hide underneath the bedding once the pacification of the people has been achieved, and thereby conduct their deadly business (for what else is the “defense” sector but that, along with copycat corporate practices such as GM’s ignition death switch?), but also they can suck their thumbs in complacent disregard of the misery and human suffering they’ve caused. Like Schroeder in “Peanuts,” the surveillance blanket here imparts an assured sense of security and comfort as profits roll in and the populace genuflects in appreciation for the goodies descending from above. Valor being one, for at several steps removed one of our own presses a button and a supposed terrorist without benefit of the rule of law is reduced to a blood spat thousands of miles away. We the nation solemnly drawing closer together did it, West Pointers all, and no Commie-Muslim-Gay is going to destroy the homeland or rob us of our heritage.
Hence, Obama pontificates at West Point, cocooned in the splendor of Military Force surrounding him, a man of steel, now that he has made a quick visit to the troops in Afghanistan, preceded by a whirlwind trip around the Pacific Rim attempting to fix and nail down the coffin for China, and that, preceded still earlier by providing instrumental help enabling the fascists to assist in Ukraine to pull off the coup d’etat that overthrew a democratically-elected president in Ukraine. How therefore, in the short space of four months (I’m counting the coup-preparations from mid-March), can one expect, following such a build-up of US unilateral global engagement, the putative sea change in American foreign policy? Obviously, one cannot. Obama feeds on militarism, the way Gandhi, his opposite, abstained from food as a means for achieving independence. In both cases, this represents a way of life, and for Obama, the way is clear for advancing what I have termed the militarization and financialization of capitalism. Liberalism greases the rails, so that his newly minted middle course between isolationism and intervention is a somewhat depraved middle veering rightward in inspiration and from its inception.
Even the New York Times, hardly a critic of the administration, comes to our rescue (and per usual finds nothing wrong about the very policies, doctrines, practices compatible with, and essential to, global hegemony), for in reporting “Highlights of the West Point Speech,” (May 29), no reporter-attribution, it states, among his “key points,” as follows: (1) “Mr. Obama rejected the notion that American influence is in decline and said that by most measures, the United States has never been stronger relative to the rest of the world”; (2) “He said that the U.S. military remained peerless, and that threats from other nations were minimal. Today’s dangers, he said, paled compared with that of the Cold War”; and (3) “He emphasized that the United States would not hesitate to use military force when ‘core interests demand it,’ defining that as ‘when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.’ Outside of those cases, he said, collective action with allies is most likely to lead to successful outcomes”.
Nothing has changed. Even discounting for slickness, the paradigm for global hegemony is unshaken and, if anything, finds crisper rationale for pressing the outward, counterrevolutionary thrust. “Never stronger”: the cheerleader exhorting the troops (no pun intended) to flex muscle and RESIST impending decline. Why even give reference to decline, unless, deep-down, there is a recognition both that the system of advanced capitalism is experiencing grave problems (I won’t say “breaking down,” because that would be outside his intellectual ken) and that an ever strong military—nothing in the speech about reducing the (astronomical) military budget—is imperative to keep America in place. “U.S. military remained peerless”: this , hardly the rallying cry for PEACE, combines with the minimization of threat, wholly contradicted by current military activity which is not slated to diminish, first and foremost, China, with the Pacific-first strategy (for which he claims emphasis if not authorship) implemented through the “pivot” including large naval forces and long-range nuclear-prepared aircraft, and the TPP for stimulating Asian trade and thereby bringing these countries into closer military, as well as economic, alliance, at the expense of China, and second, Russia, where the geostrategic goal of placing NATO on its border is behind much of the US interest in Ukraine. Rather than threats paling in comparison with the Cold War, Obama by his actions ON BOTH FRONTS is happily announcing that the Cold War is here to stay, perhaps bigger and better than ever. Finally, “When core interests demand it”: Open sesame to military power on a grand scale commensurate with the elasticity of the formula, which in fact leaves nothing out, from universalizing (already the case) the so-called war on terror (“when our people are threatened”), to any obstruction of American commercial-financial penetration on a global basis (“our livelihood is at stake”), particularly directed against China, but including favorable tariff and investment policies wherever US capitalism decides to locate, to, as well the solid phalanx of intervention, the underlying mechanism of joint-maneuvers, the whole ball of wax of forming and preserving alliances, starting with NATO, but also bilateral guarantees, as in siding with Japan over disputed rocks in the ocean (“the security of our allies is in danger”).
In all of these cases, the US “would not hesitate to use military force.” Under the rubric, “core interests demand it,” then, Obama prescribes unilateral military action. The core interests are non-negotiable. Only that which lies outside elicits the collective response with allies. Here the bar is raised; in truth, the bar is down addressed to his primary concern. That is why the West Point speech, uniting militarism and expansion, raises Obama’s war-proclivities a significant notch. As noted, he also expressed concern over Syria, America’s next Ukraine, if not its next Iraq or Afghanistan. And for good measure, “he announced a proposed $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund that would help countries such as Yemen and Mali fight emerging terrorist threats.” With a speech like that, one should urge the Nobel Committee to award Obama a second Peace Prize, so deserving is he as proven by his actions…at least as perceived by his inflated self-righteousness and superabundant ego. And the American public remains divided, one-half accepting him, from reluctance to high praise, the other half exhorting him to greater military glory or, failing that, displacing him for a New Warrior to smite the enemy.
Because the West Point speech was preceded by Obama’s announcement the day before—a superb public relations gesture—of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, I include as background my New York Times Comment on the editorial, “Trapped in Afghanistan,” (May 27), mine, same date, followed by a second NYT Comment on the Baker article (May 29), mine, same date:
It is good to see that, for once, The Times is not a rubber stamp for administration policy. Yet that is a long way from saying the war was questionable from the outset. How about some fundamental investigative reporting, rather than lukewarm, pious editorials, to determine US policy objectives. Surely, opposition to the Taliban was never sufficient reason, especially since we built them up to fight the Russians in the first place.
The Obama withdrawal (?) of forces is suspicious, given his Pacific-first strategy to contain and isolate China and his Trans-Pacific Partnership to complement military planning and provide for economic encirclement. On the issue of peace–the response to Russia on Ukraine as an example, where the US facilitated the coup d’etat to overthrow the legitimate government–Obama’s word is suspect, so that even on Afghanistan, as per his global record, America can be expected to remain there for some time. The area is pivotal for exercising control via exerting pressure simultaneously on China and Russia–crucial for US aspiration to continue maintaining global hegemony.
Unfortunately, Obama and his geostrategic framework are on the wrong side of history. Unilateralism is no longer possible. China and Russia both refuse to be further intimidated, carrier battle groups directed to one, NATO forces on the Russian border, the other.
The world is waking up to bullying, drone assassination, paramilitary operations, regime change, and rejects them.
Try as one might, and I include NYT here, to portray Obama as moderate, i.e., as seeking a middle way, neither the West Point speech nor his actual record warrants the view. Microscopic intervention over seeming nonessentials–fine; but his Pacific-first strategy, combined with TPP, puts deliberately the US on a course of confrontation with China, as does US support for the Ukrainian coup, with Russia.
Who is he kidding? The defense budget is astronomical. Nuclear modernization for greater lithality continues apace. Massive surveillance of the American people gives the lie to any attempt to characterize Obama and the administration as other than fascistic-prone. How else interpret this onslaught on civil liberties?
West Point may in the eyes of his staff usher in a new era, one Obama hopes will bind subsequent administrations, but that era will be even worse, more dangerous, than the present, because the US by his own statements does not intend to surrender unilateral world leadership–economic, political, military, ideological. As the world system becomes more decentralized through the further rise of power of China and Russia, the industrialization of Third World countries, the economic independence of Brazil, Japan, and the EU, America can no longer expect to enjoy its unique post-World War 2 position at the top.
Obama’s blueprint is to marshal force for the big encounters, always keeping the US in a state of readiness and its people under tight social control.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.