Obama’s War Address

Is that John Wayne riding toward us, Winchester across his chest, the setting sun as background? Naw, it’s POTUS surrounded by the trappings of office speaking to the American Nation as Commander-in-Chief, holding aloft the newly-minted banner depicting the geopolitical formula for war, one size fits all—“degrade and ultimately destroy”—now, paraphrasing Brecht’s Arturo Ui: today, ISIS, tomorrow… Russia and China (in the play, today, Harrisburg, tomorrow the World, a modest adaptation of you know who). Obama got off to a good start, the predictable “My fellow Americans” followed by the magical incantation of “friends and allies”—presented ad nauseam in Washington to cover the US’s leading role in organizing, as typically in the use of NATO, but SEATO not far behind as we look to the future, military action globally through deceptively lessening our footprint—“to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” (ISIS/ISIL, the constant reminder in the media the two are one, the latter adding sophistication—in the know—to the administration in making exquisite distinctions.) So, off we go into the Wild Blue Yonder, the pitch for airstrikes rather than boots on the ground, what I recently termed, technological fetishism, air power somehow an antiseptic mode of killing which comports with, rather than flagrantly violates, international law, as Obama proudly announces 150+ air strikes already against ISIS (let’s stick with that moniker).

Still the first minute, Obama’s announcement of the catch-all principle that rationalizes (i.e., legitimizes) every form of US action—and has for years, from shock-and-awe saturated bombing to waterboarding to drone assassination to CIA secret prisons, on and on: “As commander in chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people.” By definition, whatever and whomever we oppose, threatens our security—again ISIS, but Russia a near-second and China down the pike. Time for self-congratulation: we took out bin Laden and presumably vacated Iraq and drew down US troops in Afghanistan—how? Of course, “Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.” Professionals, conjuring up slide rules instead of deadly missiles—further lingo of antiseptic warfare. But America, don’t sit back, don’t let success go to your head, the very gains of counterterrorism (always confirming the THREAT is out there), while demonstrating our military prowess and superior ideology, should give the nation assurance of not flinching, and rather, staring down, further danger in the knowledge of final victory. America’s enemies are still out there, ready to destroy us. (That’s what counterterrorism is all about, keeping Americans in a state of constant fear so that policies from the massive surveillance of our own people to the related massive expenditures on the military can go unquestioned.)

Accordingly, scare the bejesus out of the American public: “Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. [Read: our very success, which proved not enough, inflates the enormity of the danger facing us.] We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. [Emphasize continuity here of policy against evil, also on the very eve of 9/11] And that’s why WE MUST REMAIN VIGILANT [my caps.] as threats emerge.” Zero in, although the first words, “at this moment,” suggest other threats lay in wait, which facilitates the permanent-war doctrine I refer to elsewhere, and, without mentioning names, Russia and China: “At this moment the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL—which calls itself the Islamic State.” This is a perfectly constructed scare-tactic and scenario for intervention.begging slogans3

“Which calls itself”—we need friends and allies, chiefly at this point proxies for carrying out operations with American training and weaponry, and thus must divest the Islamic State of its Islamic roots (and blur the “grievances” which they exploit, which conceivably may be our doing), all this besides the public relations matter of not wanting to offend the Arab-Muslim world which we need to implement Obama’s war plan, despite the hysteria stirred up against it via Homeland Security and counterterrorism. Obama pushes on: “Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents [some might dispute this, every world religion having its victims, most recently, the invasion of Gaza—through US assistance], and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslims. And ISIL is certainly not a state…. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

I do not have to apologize for ISIS or ignore or condone its crimes. Regrettably, the argument, however, is self-serving, the reasoning about a non-state as per se outside the framework of international law, and therefore carrying the presumption of being terrorist, is a direct carryover from the US-Israeli paradigm of non-recognition of a Palestinian state and the imputation that Hamas feasts on its own people (hiding in densely populated areas for its rocket attacks, Gazan civilian casualties its own doing). By current standards, ISIS is neither alone nor unique in the commission of atrocities, the bill of particulars easily matched by crimes of the US deftly dismissed as unavoidable collateral damage, Israel, ditto (the recent killing of civilians, including women and children in the shelling of UN schools/shelters in Gaza), and as for the grisly vicious acts of beheading, the Saudis at the very same time as the ISIS crimes carried out far more. If everyone else were up-and-up, I’d feel better about Obama’s indictment of ISIS: “In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists—Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.” Detestable as the acts, the constant drumming of the images into the public mind to sway public opinion toward war (wholly successful, as the polls show) is opportunistic and nearly as obscene.


Where is the speech heading? Obviously, to place the American Homeland under threat, subtly, not directly, but by indirection, which is just as effective. First, the well-worked theme of protecting US embassies and the like, but then the jump to America: “So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.” In fact, the vaguer, the better, leaving the threat amorphous, ready to pounce—and if the evidence is not forthcoming (not for want of trying), manufacture it, like Saddam’s WMD as justification for invading Iraq. Thus, nip ISIS in the bud before American recruits come back to haunt us: “Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.” This also puts friends and allies on notice to get into line.

By now, Obama is on a (propaganda) roll. Frighten Americans, yet reassure them that by giving POTUS a blank check he will summon military power to vanquish all foes. “I know,” he goes on, “many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight I want you to know that the United States of America [when the full title is laid out, an old speechwriter’s trick, time to run for cover] is meeting them with strength and resolve.” This is followed by a litany of action—already taken (!): “Last month I ordered our military to take targeted action against ISIL to stop its advances. Since then we’ve conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq. These strikes have protected American personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory.” So much for Republican criticism; so much for Obama the vacillator, indifferent to democracy and freedom: “These strikes have also helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.” The Leader of Determination, deserving our trust, the White House image factory at work to fit the occasion.

I can hear fife and drum in the background slowly rising to a crescendo (my perfervid imagination) as he announces the battle plan. We have an obligatory cautionary note to underplay American involvement: “But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves. Nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. That’s why I’ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have done in recent days.” Sweet reasonableness itself, making all action okay. Horns added, along with mixed chorus, Star-Spangled Banner still barely audible, as Ives might have it, the sales pitch for America leading a Crusade of Freedom against Evil: “So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will LEAD A BROAD COALITION [my caps.] to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

The plan is simplicity itself: comprehensive, sustained, a full court press, ignoring borders, the world America’s (terrorist-laden) oyster, to be opened up by any means possible. “First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.” Not just “protecting our own people and humanitarian missions,” but “hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.” Cymbals clash: “…I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq.” Fireworks, people standing: “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” The rest is anticlimax, nuts-and-bolts effectuation of the Mighty Confrontation. “Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.” Troop deployment, of course “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” Same in Syria, where “we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition,” accompanied by a plea to Congress “to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.” (In this regard, Assad must go.)

Finally, third and fourth, same old, same old— increased counterterrorism programs and humanitarian assistance. “… we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks,” and “… we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.” Wouldst the same assistance be rendered to innocent civilians displaced—and worse—by ourselves and friends and allies. Consummate workmanship of the national-security team, each implicated in some aspect of the behavior characterizing ISIS, perfecting the art of intervention: “So this is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.” E.g., “already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq, sending arms and assistance to Iraqi security forces and the Syrian opposition, sharing intelligence and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian [?] aid.” And Kerry is traveling throughout the Middle East shoring up support. Obama in quintessential mode—proxy fascism put in the best possible light: “This is American leadership at its best: We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.” The one-two punch, provide the airpower and rally others to fight on the ground and in other capacities, “the approach,” he continues, “I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”


The peroration to Obama’s Gettysburg Address—here a bit of nostalgia to rally the people, an old-fashioned medley of Over There, Anchors Aweigh, and the Caissons Go Rolling Along—he unashamedly rings the charges on the theme of America’s greatness, first reminding us of what we have recently gone through: “My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks six years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.” No matter, we are the stronger for it, America being “better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.” We’ve got unmatched technology companies and universities, thriving industries, energy independence in the near future, businesses having “the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history,” not least, exactly what the people want to hear, “I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every day [presumably on the golf links], and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future.” Ditto our record abroad. Salute, rev up the engines, America is on its way.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.