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“Diplomacy” as Cover for Aggression: Obama’s UN Speech

Words can be playthings for war criminals, as is the case here. Michael Hudson and Paul Craig Roberts provided excellent context for Obama’s UN appearance (CounterPunch, Sept. 29); my own follow-up textually analyzes the lies and contradictions behind Obama’s splendiferous rhetoric, a display of hypocrisy and cant worthy of Woodrow Wilson in transmogrifying the meaning of democracy—as now, does Obama—to fit an hegemonic foreign policy dedicated to counterrevolutionary ends. In both cases, Russia is the central object of attention, Obama the Wilsonian of US exceptionalism brought up to date, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, interventions and multiple covert actions, attempts at regime change, and drone assassination, as well as embargoes, boastfulness of military and economic might, in sum, the exultation and use of force characterizing America’s role in international politics. The speech reeks with premises of a double standard exempting the US from the rule of law.

This is disheartening, but not unexpected, the Bush-Obama continuity in national-security policy, part of the larger pattern from the World War II aftermath forward, reaching an apogee of Reaction, that is, until the next stage of political-ideological consolidation of nascent fascism becomes evident. America has been the leading force in global conflict and disruption, the two areas Obama singles out for special comment in the speech, Ukraine and Syria, both showing its unilateral drive for unrestricted dominance. On the former, a coup in Kiev installed through US effort a Far Right hooliganism disguised as government, and as for the latter, one queries, what gave America the right to consider the Middle East an exclusive zone of control and military penetration? This last has been going on for some time, and interestingly, in all the discussion, planning, and concrete activity to displace Assad, there is no mention of Israel’s possible role in guiding or supporting US policy in this regard—nor, of course, giving reasons for demonizing him. If Assad has gone against his people, evidence of atrocities has thus far been sketchy, and the tenor of the discussion smells like old fish given America’s penchant for strengthening and on occasion installing dictatorial regimes—for what else defines the CIA’s purpose in being?

Let’s look, then, at the speech, the caveat being: words are measured by the record presumably supporting them. In self-congratulatory mode, Obama credits the US since the UN’s founding with “prevent[ing] a third world war—by forging alliances with old adversaries; by supporting the steady emergence of strong democracies accountable to their people instead of a foreign power; and by building an international system that imposes a cost on those who choose conflict over cooperation, an order that recognizes the dignity and equal worth of all people.” As though there had never been a Cold War with the US immune from criticism, beginning with Bretton Woods, then the Marshall Plan, the support of Chiang, Korea, atomic diplomacy, the poisonous cultural atmosphere of McCarthyism—and we’ve barely gotten out of the early 1950s. Each of his boasts is qualified by history, the last, “an order that recognizes the dignity and equal worth of all people,” not even applying to the US itself, where massive surveillance hardly bespeaks respect for the people—nor the saturation bombing, whether in Vietnam or Iraq. And who but America, “choose[s] conflict over cooperation”?

There have been setbacks, to be sure, “but we [he refers to the UN, yet implicitly puts America at the forefront] have pressed forward, slowly, steadily, to make a system of international rules and norms that are better and stronger and more consistent.” In fact, quite the opposite, the US in flagrant violation thereof in shaping international alliance systems and practicing regime change, in the Hemisphere, for starters, but extending worldwide wherever governments give signs of disobedience or ingratitude. America, like Wilson also proclaimed, is the foundation of world order—internationalism then, globalization now. Yet, Obama warns, beware: “the march of human progress never travels in a straight line, that our work is far from complete; that dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world.” The reference, unmistakably, is first to Russia, the center of Obama’s animus, and also, never far behind, China.

Syria becomes the test of America’s beneficence in international politics. The US must never forsake its moral obligation to advance democracy. “Today,” he states, “we see the collapse of strongmen and fragile states breeding conflict, and driving innocent men, women and children across borders on an epic scale. Brutal networks of terror have stepped into the vacuum.” In other words, Assad is to blame for ISIS and the refugee problem, America’s pressures toward regime change in Syria nonexistent. However, Russia and China are not far behind as culprits in defaming (American-sponsored) world order. Older ground rules, e.g., “might makes right” and “strong states must impose their will on weaker ones,” are no longer acceptable: “On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law. We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s [UN’s] mission…. In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse.” Actually, despite the straight-line projection from Russia to Assad to bombing innocent children, one senses that Obama is more anti-Assad than anti-ISIS and acts accordingly.

Granted, the world sees “greater polarization,” to which America “is not immune,” but under his leadership Obama charts the path forward (a pardonable braggadocio given what he has to offer): “As President of the United States, I am mindful of the dangers that we face; they cross my desk every morning. I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.” An open admission of US impunity in the violation of international law! To which he adds, “We cannot look backwards,” precisely the phrase he used to explain away his refusal to investigate the Bush administration for possible war crimes—we must go forward, not backwards (he uses it whenever his administration has been caught red-handed in its arrogance of power).

From here we enter Obama’s topsy-turvy world in which he proclaims America’s abidance with international law, renunciation of repression, and commitment to the role and power of ideas. Examples: “Unless we work with other nations under the mantle of international norms and principles and law that offer legitimacy to our efforts, we will not succeed.” “I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed.” “You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth.” All noble words, but contradicted at every turn by his and USG’s actions, as when he said above, “unilaterally and by force where necessary.” There is much more to the speech, layers on layers of hypocritical gibberish, but let me stop here with this extended nugget, a renunciation of imperialism, repression, aggression: “Indeed, I believe that in today’s world, the measure of strength is no longer defined by the control of territory. Lasting prosperity does not come solely from the ability to access and extract raw materials.”

He continues: “The strength of nations depends on the success of their people—their knowledge, their innovation, their imagination, their creativity, their drive, their opportunity—and that, in turn, depends upon individual rights and good governance and personal security.” High school spread-eagle oratory at its best—never mind surveillance, mass incarceration, the militarization of state and local police, pressures exerted on the media for abject conformity, a tightening of political discourse, far worse than under McCarthyism, because now internalized by the citizenry, with ethnocentric, xenophobic beliefs and values receiving widespread assent in the political arena, and the self-righteous praise of Exceptionalism conferring license to act as though inhabiting a solipsistic world of grace as launching pad for global pillaging. He concludes the passage: “Internal repression and foreign aggression are both symptoms of the failure to provide this foundation.” Yes, and America has excelled in both.

My New York Times Comment to one of several article on the topic, (Sept. 28), follows:

Obama criticizes Putin, ignoring his own role and that of the US in global interventions, covert actions, and regime change. America does not have clean hands; Obama especially, with his massive surveillance at home, should be the last to criticize either Putin or Assad–his own record of confrontation with Russia and China, his boast that America has the strongest military, his militarization of trade (TPP), his general demeanor, mark him as the most belligerent, officious president in modern memory.

Putin and Xi have a firm grasp of international politics, while Obama is the cowboy/braggart thoroughly at home with the use of force, not to say, drone assassination. To hear him criticize the others is sheer phoniness, as he brings America lower in the world’s estimation.

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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.

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