Obama and Paris

World leaders were in the front rows, arms locked as a sign of solidarity, more than one million strong marching behind. But where was the King of Counterterrorism, one who has made the issue, along with drone assassination, torture, war, intervention, massive defense spending, equally massive surveillance, deregulation, Espionage Act prosecution, support for Wall Street, all of which having been successfully made invisible, swept under the rug, the more effective the more hidden, because riding the coattails of counterterrorism itself, who appears to have ducked the limelight and not shown up in Paris? Was this a simple misstep, as the White House maintained, a quiet Sunday at home, and if so, what does that say about Obama and his use of foreign policy? And if not (although they come to the same thing), his use, then, of counterterrorism?

Our Strangelove is a gold-plated imposter, on foreign policy, inept, platitudinous, deceitful, so that to fall back on “misstep” has some truth—gross incompetence living within hermetically-sealed walls provided by uniformly reactionary national security advisers and the intelligence and military communities whose views of permanent war find ready acceptance. Obama is never misled; he is a true believer of US world hegemony. His choice of advisers, from Brennan to a miasma of liberal neo-Cons, proves the point, so that the presumed misstep is hardly that. Counterterrorist leadership is to be flaunted, not shared. It ranks with all-time subterfuges as an emergency response to America’s declining global status, just as its twin, anticommunism, was the springboard marking American ascent in the decades following World War Two. In each case, a makeover of US social structure, wealth distribution, domestic stimulation to obedience, becomes accelerated, with the militarization of capitalism the midwife unifying these phases of development.

Obama did not go to Paris because his crocodile tears for the slain French would have been immediately apparent. America thrives on counterterrorism; under Obama, it ensures the conditions for terroristic activity to continue, America’s specialization of attacking Muslim countries, the black sites, renditions, regime changes, enhanced interrogation, all inseparable from the interventions, wars, and diplomatic support for dictatorial regimes (Ukraine, Israel, for starters), only exacerbating the geopolitical paradigm by which the US seeks to keep its position in the world. Too much is at stake to show one’s hand. The US has perhaps never cherished secrecy so much as under Obama’s watch, an ideological model for the terrorization of the American people while affording the requisite aloofness arguing presumptively for the country’s unparalleled strength. The King of Counterterrorism need not, even dare not, come down to the level of his subjects—Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, etc.—the magic of arrogance needed for bigger things: the confrontation with Putin and Li.

But the more compelling reason for avoiding Paris, crocodile tears aside, and the contemptuous attitude taken toward world leaders not measuring up to America’s power, is, in the classic terms of US foreign-policy principles, No Entangling Alliances (other than those already negotiated in America’s favor), which speaks to the unilateral free hand America seeks on the world stage. Counterterrorism must wear the US brand, open-ended in scope, conducive to domestic regimentation, almost as though a franchise on the brand, which makes America the custodian of global security and brings to fruition the dream of a clash of world civilizations, us and them, isolating the Muslim world and ensuring America’s domination of the remainder. Let the French prattle on about freedom of thought and hold their demonstrations of a million, we know better, we know how to silence opposition, even if usually taking a soft-approach like compressing the political spectrum so narrowly as to destroy the idea of alternatives.

Best of all, the terrorist is the helpmate of American conformity, the means of unifying a people around the symbols and themes of patriotism—the quintessential Outsider cementing the cohesion of the in-group. France at the moment may be experiencing the same kind of ideological reinforcement, but the sheer numbers involved are frightening to the Disciples of Order. If Occupy Wall Street doesn’t stand a chance, how expect the crowd in the Place de la Concorde to find acceptance in American officialdom? Obama as usual is going to toughen it out, against presumed enemy and friend alike. His lap dogs Biden and Kerry may make appearances, and he, in turn, lap dog to America’s ruling groups, where financial, industrial, and military elites gather in ever more systemic fashion, can be expected, again, as usual, to deliver the goods—a perfect synthesis of oligarchic capitalism dressed in the garb of wholesomeness, liberalism, and above all peace.


Obama is parlaying counterterrorism into a military-ideological vehicle for maintaining now-threatened American global hegemony. The world order is no longer US-centric, whole geographic and power blocs shifting around, seeking separation from America’s influence through new alignments or initial autarkic experiments. The US’s customary free hand in world affairs is becoming a sad memory, “friends” either bought off or resentful at the dependence so difficult to shake, or both, and “allies” forced to toe-the-line through participation in military interventions and diplomatic loyalties—equally grating to leaders’ ears. In large, Europe and Latin America can no longer be taken for granted, as if to say, international free agents in-the-making, unwilling to accept the salary caps embedded in trade agreements, and tired of the extravagance of military spending when solutions to unemployment and social needs have to be met.

Counterterrorism—increasingly a self-created albatross around the neck primarily of the West. It may be too late to avoid the so-called Clash of Civilizations, because history cannot be undone if only with good intentions. Major political-structural transformations, yes, but that presently is almost as remote as turning back the clock, specifically, the interrelated trends since the early-19th century of the rise of colonialism/ mercantilism and capitalism. The West has a lot to make up for, even to the present day. Jihadists are not freedom fighters, no matter how you slice it. But even the Charlie Hebdo massacre (no other word is appropriate) cannot be explained without recourse to the Algerian war, and before that, Vietnam, both of which demonstrated French cruelty, the ugly face of imperialism, and for Algeria, as part of a long line now of Muslim countries, unreserved destruction, whether throwing people out of airplanes (Algeria) or dismantling whole towns through saturation bombing (Iraq).

Violence may and now does take on a life of its own, as though nothing came before. But something did come before, a severity of oppression and repression inscribed into the history and psychology of the lands affected by Western domination, lands predominantly Arab and Muslim insofar as relevance to the present crisis is concerned. Crisis? The world is struggling to enter a new phase of existence and development, and whether we speak of traditions of hegemony hard to break or the simple matter of oil (itself not sufficient explanation for the Western presence in the Middle East), it remains true a seedbed of resistance and revolt has been created, an intensity sharpened by the dynamics of religion, which is in opposition the West as it conceives itself, its values, its presumed contribution to civilization.

Here Obama with his reflex counterterrorism becomes, because of American power, the Sentinel at the Gate, warding off all threats to Democracy, Freedom of Thought, Capitalism, a heady brew having long ago forfeited any claim to other than designated labels rationalizing first and foremost US supremacy, others invited into the Grand Circle on America’s sufferance. The world house behind the gate is being remodeled, the grand circle is holding in fewer and fewer loyalists. He could not attend the Paris March because Americans can’t stand ridicule. The familiar presidential context of war, hegemony, grandeur of nuclear display, is losing global appeal—hard to take when respect for the US, for decades grounded in an overwhelming power and wealth, is evaporating. America is not powerless, but the estimation in foreign eyes is the destructiveness it is capable of wreaking, and support to others (notably, Israel) for the same end (as in Gaza), rather than promotion of the international commonweal.

Apropos of the foregoing, what follows is my New York Times Comment, Jan. 14, to Daniel Bilefsky’s article, “Charlie Hebdo’s Defiant Muhammad Cover Fuels Debate on Free Speech,” also Jan 14, which points to the swirling controversy (mostly one-sided) over free speech. I see proponents for its absolute expression both unconcerned about the social welfare and the hurt caused to the Muslim people, and unwillingness to examine the hollowness of their professions of liberty and freedom, in light of the atrocities the West has committed, against Muslims, but so many others, over time. Will a spirit of international brotherhood finally emerge after the brutal murders? That is the last thing US policy makers want. Keep terrorism alive. It’s good for business. The Comment:

Free speech works by common consent in a society that is founded on reason and that values social justice. If the society’s own value system rewards incendiary and/or puerile statements, I question the quality of its “freedom.” Freedom requires responsibility. It works only to the degree the people are worthy of its benefits. Weimar was a free society, yet tolerating Naziism in its midst led to its overthrow. Current usage of “free speech” is based on extreme libertarian doctrine, itself where we’re at in Europe and America, where an alternative strand of social philosophy has been neglected, discarded, even vilified: the RIGHTS OF THE COMMUNITY.

I submit, Charlie Hebdo went, knowingly went, too far: this was not gutsy, courageous exercise of free speech, but the desire to shock and hurt–flippancy, rock-bottom cynicism about what human beings are entitled to, including their self-respect and profound convictions.

This is no way apologizes for the murders; they and their perpetrators must be CONDEMNED in the harshest terms and penalized accordingly. That they occurred testifies to the deeper malaise in Western Civilization, the indifference to human dignity, the alacrity in finding solutions to differences through war and intervention.

Individuals are responsible for their acts, here the murderers. But reason demands asking about an antecedent causation–the West’s invasion of Muslim countries and commission of unspeakable atrocities. Sadly, no one has clean hands.

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.