Doctrine of Denial: the Atlantic Does Obama

The April issue of The Atlantic includes a long essay on President Barack Obama. It appears to be based on intermittent interviews author Jeffrey Goldberg had with the president. It is a slick production. Just slick enough to fool the garden-variety reader with little political knowledge beyond the empty carbs he or she has ingested from the mainstream media. The piece is studded with glamorous staged photos of the president in moments of repose—a historical figure resting on his historical laurels.

These images are smartly interspersed with the man at work, that effective contrast of deliberation and decisive action. There is our man of the hour, gripping the podium and delivering the high-flown words on which our fates depend; listening intently to the tomfoolery of Russian leader Vladimir Putin (“He’s not completely stupid.”); deigning to shake the liver-spotted paw of Cuban President Raul Castro (while in other rooms Fidel pens furious denunciations of Washington policy); at times of dreary tedium (sitting at a table flanked with crusty white men in suits and epaulets); staring across the table at the doughy visage of David Cameron, with his cohort of obsequious Atlanticists; dispensing wisdom to Japanese President Shinzo Abe in a stretch limousine; charming children in Kuala Lumpur (perhaps while staff scurry to find his real birth certificate); being given the death stare by frightening U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power; and on and on.

These visual abutments provide a frisson of rare privilege that nicely complement the extended fireside chat of the article itself. Rare indeed—the proletariat given a glimpse of the inner sanctum. A glimpse, as it were, through the waxed lens of the MSM, burnished to a high sheen. So it is with no surprise that the article caused little stir among fact checkers and other studious editors, despite the additionally overlooked fact that it contained several staggering untruths, left to fester inside the body politic.

Lies Unburied

In Sophocles Antigone, Creon leaves Polyneices unburied as a gesture of contempt. During the infamous Black Death that swept Europe in the 14th century, armies sometimes lobbed disease corpses over rival fortifications in an early instance of biological warfare. Not unlike the pestilence borne by the dead, lies that are repeated even after having been discredited spread like a plague across the population of readers. The Atlantic does a nice job of spreading the disease of false information—a necessary activity for any media organization hoping to join the elite ranks of the doctrinal system. Several large lies are perpetuated with little sense from Goldberg, and virtually none from Obama, that they had not only been proven false, but also shown to be deliberate fabrications of the West.

Goldberg spends some time explaining the Syrian chemical attack on a Damascene suburb and the hubbub over the president’s “red line” across which no Syrian could cross. Naturally, once Obama had foolishly laid down this prescription for auto-generated war, anti-Assad warmongers began hatching their false flag plots. One eventually succeeded. Seymour Hersh reported that chems were transported from Turkey to the anti-Assad terrorists (euphemistically called rebels; sorry, but what would Washington call an armed contingent of foreigners—or even Americans—that tried to storm the White House? Freedom fighters?). This was later corroborated by whistleblowers in the Turkish parliament. The terrorists used the chemical weapons on the population, hoping to instigate American bombing missions that would give them much needed air cover they lacked.

To his credit, Obama vacillated when he was told—remarkably by arch villain James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who lied to Congress about surveillance—that the evidence that Assad had committed the attack was not a “slam dunk,” the basketball phrase used to assure George Bush that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Still, Clapper indicated to the president that the evidence was robust. Yet once British Parliament denied bomb-happy Cameron the authority for a Syrian free-for-all, Obama backed down. To this day, the White House has yet to acknowledge the fabrication.

Like Syria, the Libyan War will stand as one of the Obama administration’s greatest military crimes. A rich, well-educated, highly functioning and fatally independent-minded country was ripped apart by NATO and its terrorist army based on fantastically false claims that Libyan Muammar Gaddafi was about to commit genocide against his own people, and had pumped his men full of Viagra and loosed them on the population to commit mass rape. Obama was supposedly reluctant and was heavily lobbied by sociopath Hillary Clinton. As with most of his major crimes, Obama was said to give in despite his misgivings. (He was certainly not reluctant to take an aggressive stand against Russia and Vladimir Putin. In the article, his belittlement of the Russian president belies a kind juvenile resentment.)

Iran is also said by Obama to be a terrible troublemaker in the Middle East, positioning the United States, for the umpteenth time, as the rational voice among a predictable platoon of psychopaths with the Persian mullahs leading that list. Goldberg and Obama chat with a trace of irony about how Iran is a “dangerous country” and needed to be prevented from obtaining a nuclear bomb. Neither of these vicious slanders is true. Iran hasn’t attacked anyone in centuries and has been shown to have quit its nuclear weapons program in 2003—not that one should be surprised that Iran had once thought to pursue a nuclear weapon. It’s perfectly understandable to any sane observer. Washington once engineered a coup in Tehran, and has more recently sanctioned it needlessly for years, launched a massive cyber-attack against it, and invaded and destroyed its neighbors—not to mention allowing its rabid proxies in Tel Aviv to assassinate its scientists. Why wouldn’t they seek the ultimate form of defense? Seems to work for North Korea. But Tehran has evidently gotten the message that it would never be permitted equal footing with Israel in the Middle East and it has opted to have its peaceful nuclear program shackled rather than have its infrastructure shattered by unannounced bombing raids. As he waxes philosophic about the Middle East, Obama adds the condescending remark that the U.S. needs to explain to Saudi Arabia and Iran that they need to figure out how to “share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

The president seems equally misguided about Latin America, a region steeped in American intrigues. He instanced his appearance at the Summit of the Americas as a moment when his low-key, non-hysterical approach to foreign affairs worked. This as contrasted with the Bush regime’s grave fearmongering and snarling posturing. Obama sniveled that he had to sit through an hour-long lecture by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega on the crimes of the United States. Well—and why not? Is Ortega wrong to condemn the crimes that destroyed his country and its once-budding socialist movement, felled by the hysterical hand of the Reagan administration, beholden to its McCarthyite Manicheanism?

Obama also accepted, or was handed, a Marxist critique of U.S.-Latin American relations from Hugo Chavez, whom he deigned to meet. Though meeting foreign leaders is the very stuff of geopolitics, Obama stresses it as an example of his reasonableness as against the hardline rejectionism of neoconservatives. And yet we continue to back coups and violent destabilization in Venezuela. Obama does not seem to notice that this grand new approach to foreign relations is mere window-dressing. It does little to change the underlying neoliberal imperial capitalist policy. What was new was simply a plan not to directly insult or dramatically demonize one’s professed enemies, most of whom were actually interested in rapprochement, which was rejected time and again unless the rival government acceded to Washington’s destructive demands.

In the end, so what if he shook Chavez’s hand? He still denounced—two sentences later—the Bolivarian revolution that lifted millions from poverty and illiterate obscurity. So what if he sat through Ortega’s harangue? He has still worked to undermine Latin American independence. The article praises Obama for the disintegrating character of the once-hopeful ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America), a regrettable development that has more to do with the death of Chavez than any policy prescription. Though on this front it should be said that the Western-backed business community in Venezuela has done a bang-up job of destabilizing the Venezuelan economy with its commodity hoarding exercise, which has helped send the Caracas government careening off a cliff.

Goldberg doesn’t lift a finger to point out any of the deceits noted here. The oversight is no small one. Read Luciana Bohne’s outstanding essay, “The Coward’s War,” for a fuller picture of the incredible violence left untouched in this sensitive sketch of our thoughtful constitutional scholar.

A Dove in Flight

The piece successfully presents Obama as a somewhat skeptical but judicious leader who takes quite seriously the use of American power in foreign affairs. And he is exactly that—within a frame of imperial fictions. Like all instances of purblind patriotism, the article presents lots of flattering facts but crucially omits the most unbecoming—and important—ones. It sidesteps them because to concede them would be to bring down the whole factitious edifice one has taken the trouble to erect. But the portrait is not worthless. It is a useful lens into the way a modern caretaker of empire thinks. Obama appears to be sincere in many of his answers. He truly seems troubled by certain issues in the Middle East and that the Asian (military) pivot is some kind of urgent necessity. And yet to acknowledge the possibility that Obama is sincere is simply to accept the possibility that he is comprehensively delusional. And to suggest as much does nothing to change the fact that the entire piece itself is tremendously flawed in its assumptions.

The rather astonishing conclusion a reader might reach is that Obama is more or less a foreign policy dove. That he avoids entangling engagements. If you swallow the mendacities about Russia and Venezuela and Libya and Iran and Syria, he does appear to be more reluctant to act than he might have cause to be. Juxtaposed against images of vile despots slaughtering defenseless mothers and crackpot dictators taking wild gambits in vulnerable territories, the view of the president as a dove is not particularly appalling. In other words, it’s easy to swallow.

The Useful Banality of Barack

In the end, Obama clearly sees the demise of Latin unity, the pinioning of Iran in a deeply intrusive inspections regime, and the ongoing attempts to remove Bashar al-Assad as positive developments. None seems to have aggravated the president even so much as to heighten his blood pressure. Likewise, Obama sees the destructive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—that will lift corporate sovereignty above state sovereignty—as a critical success. He ignores the larger effects of the pact to remind Goldberg that he persuaded the Vietnamese Communist Party to recognize labor unions. Doubtless a good act as far as it goes, but what’s the point if the TPP as a whole will comprehensively bury any marginal gains on the labor front? The point, perhaps, is to have useful progressive talking points for interviews with magazines like The Atlantic.

If anything, the “The Obama Doctrine” suggests that the compartmentalization we once thought was a special perversion of Bill Clinton is perhaps a psychological necessity for a loyal proprietor of empire. Obama appears oblivious to the catalog of flawed premises from which he elucidates his “doctrine.” This compartmentalizing gene, probably present even among the greatest soothsayers, serves a twofold purpose: it permits the compartmentalizer to conduct his or her daily business with an untroubled conscience, and it helps him or her project the image of a harmless, even-handed, judicious middle manager. Hardly the image one summons when thinking of the perpetrators of drone assassinations and the liquidation of entire nation-states.

But that is perhaps the unapplied lesson of Adolf Eichmann, the benign functionary that played a leading role in the organization of the Jewish ghettos and the transfer of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Eichmann seemed to dispel any feelings of remorse for his behavior with the rather simplistic idea that he was simply following orders. As a bespectacled and unimposing servant of the Nazi Party, Eichmann was the logistical whiz that later led Hannah Arendt to coin her indelible phrase, “the banality of evil.” So much of the article in The Atlantic is itself banal, presented as a series of policy conundrums, articulated by Obama in a strategist’s lexicon and written in the bland and pulseless prose of a policy wonk. The effect is to tranquilize the reader. The temperature in the article never really rises.

In the article’s spotlight image, Obama appears in a warm navy blue suit, his hair now sprinkled with white, his eyes creased, his smile kindly and patient, his thin hands interlaced in a laconic gesture of calm. He is perched on the edge of dark wooden stool in front of an earth-toned wall. Everything about the image implores us to sink within the hushed and stormless aura of this Nobel Prize honoree. We are thus soothed into quiescence. This is propaganda at its most proficient. It is hard for a reader to object to. After all, the atmosphere is serene, the intellectual discourse is engaging, and the intimate portrait flatters one’s curiosity about power. That other stuff, the war and the fear and the dismemberment and the fire, feels so far away. In fact, you can’t even hear the screams.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at