Reflections on Egypt, Honduras, and the Art of Imperial Re-branding
“Expectation Calibration is Essential At Home and Internationally”
How soon – often immediately – we forget the red flags that warned us in advance of imperial abominations to come. Take Harvard international relations professor Samantha Powers’ appearance on “The Charlie Rose Show” nearly three years ago – in mid February of 2008. A leading advocate of Washington’s so-called humanitarian intervention abroad, professor Powers was then Obama’s top foreign policy advisor (a position she would soon lose after being caught calling Hillary Clinton “a monster”). She had an interesting exchange with the gangly and pinstriped Rose, a master panderer and interlocutor for the power elite. Noting that the President George W. Bush had recently been swamped by cries of “O-ba-ma” during a state visit to Africa, Rose asked Powers if she was concerned about the “sky-high expectations” much of the world seemed to have for an Obama presidency. There is “some danger” in this, Rose worried. Powers agreed. “Right,” she said, noting that Obama is “acutely aware of this.” And “that,” Power said, “is why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.”
Powers’ comments got creepier. “Part of having a credible American leader again who is un-implicated with the war in Iraq who is very attractive to people around the world,” she told Rose, “is to somehow use that early wind at his back to try to extract commitments to patrol the commons, to actually deal with these broken people and broken places."1
Behind Powers’ elitist and technocratic language on the “management” of public hope and aspirations lay an obvious (for those willing to acknowledge it) admission: the “antiwar” Obama was as attached to the United States’ imperial project as Bush and this would dangerously disappoint hopeful masses at home and abroad in the event of an Obama ascendancy to the White House. The multitudes’ naïve faith in “change we can believe in” would need to be downwardly “calibrated” as we crossed into the post-Bush era of U.S. global dominance. An Obama presidency, unlike the wildly and dangerously unpopular Bush administration (guilty of fanning “anti-Americanism” abroad) would be successful in at once seducing (with the “wind at his back” conferred by global “attractiveness” and antiwar image) and disciplining (“patrolling”) the refractory nations and masses (“broken places” and “broken people”...unmentionably broken by Empire) on the giant shantytown periphery (“the commons” ) of the world capitalist system. What a formula – no small part of how and why I thought an Obama presidency would be irresistible to the U.S. foreign policy establishment.3
“The Administration’s Message Now is Much Better”
I was reminded of Samantha Powers’ revealing 2008 comment by a recent New York Times report on the Obama administration’s squishy response to the democratic revolution in Egypt. As Times correspondents Helene Cooper and Mark Mazetti put it, the Obama administration was “assess[ing] and reassess[ing] their strategy in dealing” with the Egyptian crisis as part of “a carefully calibrated process aimed at avoiding a direct challenge to [U.S-sponsored Egyptian dictator Hosni] Mubarak’s unwavering belief that if you make concessions — like tendering a resignation — in the face of pressure, you invite more demands.”4 Obama may have seemed to push early in the Egyptian crisis for an early exit for Egypt’s dictator, but his and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tone have subsequently “calibrated” in accord with standard U.S.-imperial concerns for “regional stability” in the oil-rich Middle East and the health of other regimes (principally Saudi Arabia and Israel) on which the U.S. depends there.5
Last week, Obama seemed to press Mubarak by calling for democratic change “now.” This week his Secretary of State took the pressure off the legendary tyrant who has ruled Egypt with the help of massive U.S. military assistance by saying that change will a “take some time” – a clear endorsement of Mubarak’s bid to stay in power until next fall and to put the “reform” process in the hands of regime loyalists. The change in tone was gratefully acknowledged by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit in an interview broadcast last night (I am writing on the morning of Thursday, February 10, 2011) on the Public Broadcast System’s “News Hour.” Asked if he felt the Mubarak regime was getting a “consistent message from Washington,” Gheit said that “The first four, five days, it was a confusing message. And I was often angry, infuriated. But, through discussions with the administration, I think now we have an administration that understands exactly the difficulties of the situation and the dangers and the risks that are entailed in a rush towards chaos without end. So, the -- the administration's message now is much better.”6
Yes, the “message” has been properly calibrated, consistent with what Noam Chomsky calls “the usual [Washington] playbook.” When “some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control,” Chomsky noted, “There’s a kind of a standard routine:: keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable—typically, say, if the army shifts sides—switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names.”7
You don’t have to be a leftist to acknowledge the imperial calculations behind the administrations attempted downwardly calibrated management of Egyptian expectations. Last Sunday, the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote with admiration about how “Obama’s response to the Egyptian crisis has crystallized his entire foreign policy vision. ….it’s clear,” Douthat noted, “that the administration’s real goal has been to dispense with Mubarak while keeping the dictator’s military subordinates very much in charge. If the Obama White House has its way, any opening to democracy will be carefully stage-managed by an insider like Omar Suleiman, the former general and Egyptian intelligence chief who’s best known in Washington for his cooperation with the C.I.A.’s rendition program. This isn’t softheaded peacenik dithering,” Douthat added with approval: “It’s cold-blooded realpolitik” (emphasis added)."8
Imperial and Magical Realism
In this as in so many other ways, the Obama administration is the empire’s new clothes. Nobody should be surprised – least of all the Egyptian people. In June of 2009, when he made what was billed as an historic visit to Cairo, Obama refused to call Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak “authoritarian” (much less a dictator). He praised the Egyptian government as “a force for stability and good in the region.”9 He made no far-reaching calls for political reform, reflecting his determination to tolerate repression on the part of Middle East allies willing to assist the U.S. on “regional issues” (the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the general U.S. support for Israel and its vicious oppression of the Palestinians, and the U.S. campaign against Iran). President Mubarak and other Middle Eastern authorities naturally interpreted Obama’s reluctance to raise questions of democracy as a green light to crack down on regime critics. It was all very consistent with Samantha Powers’ interesting pre-election reflections on Obama’s critical task of “expectation management and expectation calibration.”10
Latin Americans could tell the Egyptians a thing or two about what to expect from the Obama administration. In June of 2009, the same month that Obama went to Cairo, the Honduran oligarchy’s removed the democratically elected left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya from power (and from Honduras). At first, Obama expressed the view that the deposed president should be returned to power. He joined the Organization of American States (OAS) in denouncing the coup – a position aligned with that of nearly every Latin American state and the United Nations General Assembly. Then the message got calibrated down from democracy as Washington essentially blessed Honduras’ thuggish new Micheletti regime – the perpetrator of a criminal putsch the administration aided and abetted from the start. The U.S. never withdrew its ambassador from Honduras, as the Latin American and European states did – this even as human rights organizations reported a significant degree of criminal repression (state-directed killings and beatings of democracy activists) in Honduras. The U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund agreed to provide the coup regime with a $150 million loan. The Pentagon kept training and funding the Honduran military. Clinton denounced Zelaya for making what she felt was an unduly provocative and “irresponsible” effort to return to his home country in late July. As the Honduran situation fell to the remote margins of corporate media coverage in mid July (with help from the death of pop icon Michael Jackson and the emergence of major civil disturbances in Iran) and with the dominant U.S. media firms essentially supporting the legitimacy of the coup (falsely claiming that Zelaya had sought to unconstitutionally extend his reign beyond his elected term), the White House refused to classify Zelaya’s ouster as a military coup. Making such a declaration would have triggered (under the Foreign Assistance Act) a cutoff of tens of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to the Central American nation, whose budget is 65 percent dependent on foreign (very predominantly U.S.) assistance. The White House made no hint of movement towards freezing the U.S. financial assets of leading Honduran coup leaders and participants – an obviously indicated action if it had been remotely serious about punishing the Honduran putschists. Practically alone in the world, Washington recognized the elections held under military control in Honduras in November of 2009. Obama’s ambassador to Honduras Hugo Lorens went deep into the Orwellian well to call those transparently corrupt, stage-managed demonstration elections “a great celebration of democracy.” Also adding deep insult to injury, Lewis Amselem, Obama’s representative to the OAS, told the Latin American nations to abandon the distorted “world of magical realism” (a purposely offensive reference to a cherished Latin American literary tradition associated with the legendary Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) by recognizing the legitimacy of the elections.11
Empire and Inequality
Popular “expectation management and expectation calibration” is a sacred ruling class duty. The popular excitement associated with the passing away of the openly plutocratic, messianic-militarist, and authoritarian George W. Bush administration and the election of a supposedly progressive president with nonwhite skin and a technically Muslim nomenclature – all this and more amidst the biggest world capitalist meltdown since the 1930s – has brought this noble elite task to the forefront of the White House’ agenda like no time since the New Deal administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, charged with saving profits system in a different era. As Powers indicated to Charlie Rose nearly three years ago, the mission is important “at home as well as internationally.” It isn’t just the Egyptians, the Hondurans, and other distant and desperate teeming masses abroad who have seen their excited aspirations channeled, tamed, and downsized by the Great Calibrators in Washington in the Age of Obama. Consistent with the fake-progressive president’s longstanding “business liberalism” (Kevin Baker in Harper’s in June of 2009), the “Obama, Inc.” (Ken Silverstein in Harper’s in November of 2006) administration has been a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewards capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of core campaign promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”12 As William Greider noted in The Washington Post last year, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” 13 And – a critical point – they have taken this lesson now with Democrats at the helm.14 The “right people” include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course, who are intimately tied in with the rotten, murderous Mubarak regime that Obama and Hillary Clinton are sustaining through imperial calibration.
It’s something for the all-too passive citizens of America, Inc. to contemplate – their shared subordination, along with the people of openly authoritarian Egypt, to the expectation-managers in Washington and the deeper state-capitalist interests those managers serve and protect. Empire abroad and inequality at caught up in a dialectically inseparable relationship of mutually reinforcing interdependence, assaulting popular hopes and ruining lives at home and abroad at one and the same time.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com
1. The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, February 21, 2008. Seewww.charlierose.com/shows/
2. People with Marxist and other “fringe” radical backgrounds were left to cringe at Power’s use of the phrase “patrol the commons.” A good part of the capitalist-imperialist nightmare being acted out imperially “broken places” (what we today call “developing countries”) began, Left analysts have long noted, with the breaking [-up], enclosure, and subsequent state-capitalist "patrolling" of the people’s pre-capitalist commons (common land, air, water, and hunting, growing, and recreational grounds) in 14th-16th century England. See Karl Marx,Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, v. I (New York: International, 1967), 715-734; A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England (New York: International, 1979, 165-174.
3. See Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2008), xxiv-xxvii, 134-163, 175-176.
4. H. Cooper and M. Mazzetti, “Prizing Status Quo, Mubarak Resists Pressure to Resign,” New York Times, February 6, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/
5. I was reminded of the Rose-Powers discussion also by the following passage from Ruth Conniff , reflecting on the hollowness of Obama’s statements on the Egyptian crisis:” President Obama's speech on Tuesday presenting the United States government's line on Egypt was so carefully calibrated to say nothing it was almost perfect in its meaninglessness. In words so carefully chosen they sounded downright tortured (a word the President diligently avoided) Obama expressed support for the protesters in Egypt, without acknowledging that the United States has been propping up the dictator they are protesting against. It was painful to watch the great speech-maker, who has repeatedly stirred and inspired people around the world when he talks about ‘human rights,’ democratic aspirations, and overcoming cynicism and bigotry, lapsing into hollow self-parody.” Ruth Conniff, “Obama, Mubarak: ‘We Love Pro-Democracy Protestors,’” Common Dreams (February 3, 2011) athttp://www.commondreams.org/
6. “Foreign Minister Says Sudden Change Would Bring Risks,” PBS “News Hour,” February 9, 2011 at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/
7. Interview on Democracy Now! (February 2, 2011) at http://www.democracynow.org/
9. Michael Brull, “Obama Just Updated U.S. Double-Speak,” New Matilida, June 11, 2009, athttp://newmatilda.com/print/
10. For more details and sources, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO; Paradigm, 2010), 82-83.
11. Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 66-68; Street, Empire’s New Clothes,90-98; Amy Goodman, “President Zelaya and the Audacity of Action,” Truthdig (September 22, 2009), read athttp://www.truthdig.com/
12. Street, Empire’s New Clothes, Chapter 1: “Business Rule as Usual,” 9-44.
13. William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009.
14. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it on Facebook last summer: "I'm glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation. The modern nation-state was created by war, of war, and for war. That is its only real purpose, and all others are subordinate to it. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.” Much the same could have been said in regard to domestic policy, as in this statement: “I’m glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the massive poverty and unemployment amidst spectacular and increasing wealth in the U.S. on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation. The modern capitalist state serves and protects the rich and powerful and works on behalf of the corporate and financial elite. You can change the executive director of the government but he is still the nominal head of the executive committee of the ruling class. That’s the job description.”
15. See, for example, Daya Gamage, “$2 Billion-a-Year Military Aid from U.S. to Egypt at the Expense of Human rights/Democracy,” Asian Tribune, February 4, 2011 athttp://asiantribune.com/news/