Now that the dust has settled on the whirlwind Obama visit to Australia, some conclusions might be ventured from a local perspective.
Following the president of the USA’s much praised speech to the Australian parliament, high-profile Parliament House journalist Annabel Crabb pointed out what should be obvious: the content was rather similar to that of his predecessor’s much more controversial address in 2003 – just delivered in a smoother, quieter and more articulate form. But Crabb refrained from offering her own position on that content. This is par for the course when it comes to professional Australian journalists and commentators when covering the USA in particular, lest they be ostracised (thereby losing their job) from the rather narrow ideological spectrum that – with some rare exceptions proving the overall rule by sticking out so much – passes for debate.
While many who were critical of Bush eight years ago went weak-kneed over Obama this time, with girl- and boy-crushes on plentiful display (often by middle-aged and older politicians and media people), when it comes to our region and genuine ‘national interest’ the implications of the USA’s extraordinary power may have just become more serious with the announced military base near Darwin to house 2,500 US troops and myriad war machines making us in strictly militarist terms a potentially legitimate target.
Worse than Bush?
You wouldn’t know it by the characteristically largely gushing, power-centric coverage here during his visit – which insisted that while polling poorly at home, ‘the US president remains a popular figure on the international stage’ (Tony Jones on ABC TV’s Lateline, the public broadcaster’s flagship serious ‘intellectual’ program) – but in the Middle East Obama has now pulled off the remarkable trick of being more hated than Bush. The record so far is indeed atrocious. Now we can add the Darwin announcement and Obama’s incredibly blunt, bellicose rhetoric on China (while rarely mentioning its actual name) during his visit as being in fact much more dangerous for Australia and the region than Bush was in 2003.
With the previous ‘Commander-in-chief’ (a certainly more appropriate title than the deceptively democratic sounding name the most powerful man in the world usually goes by), reality and appearance were as one. Running what was already the most right-wing country in the developed world, he lead an extreme right-wing administration with an astonishingly honest agenda of imperialist design neatly spelled out in the odious ‘Project for the new American century’. With Obama, however, it is a very velvety glove indeed that covers the always impatient iron fist of empire – and which manages, it seems, to deceive vast swathes of apparently intelligent people who still rage about how they ‘hated Bush’. But beyond some important symbolism, nothing substantive changed in 2008 with Obama’s stirring and historic election victory, and the very photogenic candidate didn’t actually say anything concrete during his campaign that should have given us genuine ‘hope’ either.
Starting his presidency by increasing the drone attacks on Pakistan despite repeated requests to desist by its elected government, three years later Obama is being rebuked by understandably outraged foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar for even further escalation of the US bombing its supposed ally, with cross-border NATO airstrikes killing 26 people. Earlier in the year, it is now seemingly forgotten, with astonishing carelessness and exceptional imperialist arrogance Obama sent an ‘elite commando’ unit secretly into Pakistan – technically invading, and potentially starting a war with a nuclear power if anything had gone wrong – to carry out an international murder before dumping the body at sea. All of these actions are illegal under international law, but no one bats an eyelid because it is simply the norm. Despite this brazen performance, which would rightly have lead to serious condemnation and possibly legal action if it were any other state (excepting Israel), Australians still had to endure Obama plastered all over our media lecturing China from afar about the importance of ‘playing by the rules’.
If Bush had ordered the same Osama bin Laden assassination, mainstream left-liberals would be up in arms at such irresponsible redneck ‘cowboy’ madness and global-reach fascism. Yet the new president has continued and often expanded the worst excesses of his predecessor by escalating the war in Afghanistan and staying in Iraq, signing into law an extension of the draconian Patriot Act, continuing the torture of prisoners overseas via the ‘rendition’ program, and failing to close Guantanamo Bay prison. And let’s not forget what galls Americans at home the most: Obama’s presiding over the bailout of failed banks that amounted to the biggest scam ever pulled off, which Naomi Klein appropriately called ‘robbery in progress’, and in full daylight – the largest transfer of funds from the public to the private sector in history. All of which simply makes plain what has always been the case in the so-called land of free enterprise (more accurately, oligarchical state capitalism): socialism for the rich, and the most brutal deregulated free-market hell for everyone else.
Once more into the breach
Seldom pointed out in the frequently gushing Obama-era media coverage of American power is the inconvenient fact that it is his nation, not Hu Jintao’s, that has military personnel deployed in more than 150 countries, and possesses more bases around the world than anyone in history – more than even the US Military itself claims to know, but conservatively somewhere between the 700 range four years ago, 1,000 in 2010 and today surely more. Poor little confused Australia is not ‘Caught between two giants’, as the familiar exaggeration of a serious newspaper’s headline on the topic suggested – advertising influential journalist Peter Hartcher’s otherwise useful insider account in the Sydney Morning Herald (the country’s premier ‘quality’ broadsheet) – when one giant has all the big guns.
Instead, Australia faces on the one hand a master in the Mafia principle of international relations, to borrow Noam Chomsky’s well-known phrase, by which unprecedented hard and soft power – the new model ‘Godfather’ being much better at both than the previous one – is exercised in the administration of a vast empire. Desperately vying for ‘number one wife’ status for most of sixty years, with stiff competition, Australia has a lot of experience and prefers this new, more attractive and better-spoken master. On the other hand, we are increasingly reliant for our enormous economic success on a newly rising power geographically and now economically much closer but culturally, politically, and ethnically entirely ‘other’ (doubly so in fact: not only being ‘Asian’ but technically ‘communist’ to boot) that fuels our anxiety more than a bit. Yet far from a threat, this country – which still possesses massive internal problems such as terrible inequality and poverty, curtailed freedom of speech, and environmental crisis – has made us one of the richest of nations thanks to buying our raw materials to make products that the West wants at the prices it demands, in the process becoming what is effectively the world’s outsourced manufacturing sweatshop.
Despite our economic inter-reliance, the ridiculous and highly dangerous ratcheting up of the ‘China threat’ thesis from the Australian perspective in recent times began in earnest thanks to former Primer Minister Kevin Rudd, the Mandarin-fluent and previously assumed ‘Sinofile’, with his government’s endorsement – against many other available alternatives – of the 2009 Defence White Paper, which argued that the rise of China meant a military threat to Australia. In a useful analysis, Ben Eltham describes the outcome of Rudd’s decision:
Australia intends to build up Australia's military forces to contain Chinese expansion. In particular, the White Paper commits us to an ambitious naval arms race that will significantly expand the capability of the Royal Australian Navy, including a controversial plan to build 12 modern submarines that would range widely in the Pacific, perhaps as far afield as the South China Sea.
Who are the military aggressors again? Does China have submarines off northern Queensland? Chinese and some Australian strategic and military commentators and officials were dismayed by the 2009 posture. A ‘farcical idea’ is Elthan’s phrase summarising this much less heard (and much more genuinely) insider discourse, referring to a well researched article by John Garnaut detailing key Beijing figures’ fears that Australia had essentially heralded the threat of an arms race.
With the Australian visit, we saw Obama adopt his own and therefore much more seriously aggressive posture that made plain the specific reason for the new Darwin facility, essentially – and considering his normal cool, with remarkable arrogance – making a massive show of ‘embedding’ us even further into his nation’s vast ‘security’ apparatus. Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating has since argued that to confirm the new base and military arrangements would have elicited a certain amount of talk if announced more surreptitiously, but to make such a spectacle of the whole thing – what he called the US ‘kabuki show’ into which Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was, albeit very willingly, roped – was unseemly to say the least. In fact, during his visit the US president did nothing less than rub Australians’ noses in the real relationship this country has with its great ‘friend.’
The biggest affront, Keating argued, was not the bases per se but the anti-China rhetoric flying around, and given some official legitimacy by Obama’s extraordinary words through which Australia was, he said, ‘perhaps verballed to be part of what looks like the stringing out of a containment policy’. This is ill advised and without factual basis, Keating continued, suggesting that Obama and his speechwriters erred badly in expressing such a view so vehemently from our supposedly sovereign shores, and within the people’s parliament, in speeches that were primarily for a US audience. But the speechwriters and Obama didn’t get it wrong. The words were primarily for us, reminding an almost entirely uncritical outpost of US power in no uncertain terms – skipping the most basic of diplomatic niceties when it really comes down to it – that we are needed for a new cold war, and there is no choice in the matter. By declaring such blatant messages about a vaguely potential challenger to US power in the region from right within our own allegedly independent parliament, spoken to Australia’s elected representatives and symbolically to the nation, Obama did much more than talk up our military ties and supposedly shared values. He sutured Australia at its institutional and democratic heart into his broadside attacks on our biggest economic partner, the rising power in a region where our nation’s future undeniably lies.
Yet despite all this the US Ambassador here, the truly smarmy Jeff Bleich, astonishingly claimed in a typically folksy and fawning Lateline interview that Obama was not delivering thinly veiled warnings during his whirlwind stopover. This is the man who with a similarly straight face vehemently rejected Melbourne academic Robert Manne’s innocuously mentioning on TV earlier this year that the US is an empire. So what are those incalculable foreign bases all over the world for then – in Darwin’s case, about three times further away from Washington than Beijing? And what were the constant ‘reassuring’ Godfather-style missives by Obama and Hillary Clinton on their visits here when they gravely intoned ‘We are an Asia Pacific power and we are here to stay’? Quite transparently, embarrassingly so, these are the commands of an empire with Mafia-like disregard for any law or desire apart from its own, now seeking to reinforce its network in our neck of the woods because another thus-far much weaker but more geographically based regional power has begun to rear its head.
Bleich’s non-Empire has carried out since 1945 over 120 interventions and invasions of other countries (including sending troops to China in 1948 to support the anti-communist Kuomintang), and often in the same place multiple times. (The full story can be read in a book by former State department insider and historian William Blum, whose authoritative and scrupulous study of rampant US violence around the world over the last seven decades is appropriately called Killing Hope.) By comparison, aside from a brief invasion of northern Vietnam in 1979 and the PLA’s poor behaviour in far-flung and disputed border regions of the PRC (particularly Tibet and Xinjiang province), China has largely kept to itself.
Obama, Clinton, Gillard, Rudd (and before them Bush, Blair and Howard) always talk about our ‘shared values’. But does Australia really share, aspire to, or want to further approve, the values practised by the USA? With the new military agreement, we even further committed ourselves hook, line and sinker to long-term marriage with a democracy destroying, criminal, mass-murdering nation abroad that keeps a dysfunctional, lied-to, starkly regressing, and democracy-starved society at home.
For a ‘great power’ or indeed compared to almost any other developed nation, the USA’s domestic record over the last three decades has been especially dismal. Americans might theoretically at least enjoy guaranteed freedom of speech, but a century ago the Supreme Court gave corporations rights that today far outstrip those enjoyed by human beings, and on every other benchmark they suffer some of the worst standards in the Western world. Since the 1970s real wages have stagnated or declined, as has provision of services (such as transport), career opportunities, and access to quality education. Large swathes of the country outside the major cities look like the third world. Even travelling to New York or Los Angeles – which are certainly rich in terms of average private wealth – after being in a West European city feels like entering a much dirtier, mainly poorer reality with off-the-charts wealth disparity, and where modernity does not seem to have progressed in any real sense.
Most glaringly of all, the US has no real healthcare system, rather a privatised, largely unregulated scam run by the big pharmaceutical companies and health funds, whose generous donations to Obama’s 2008 campaign effectively guaranteed that the option which polls showed most Americans had wanted for years was once again never offered. This is the same radical ‘socialist’ health system enjoyed in Australia, the UK, Canada, and all of Europe. (Every major political party in the rest of the developed world would have rejected the eventual band-aid plan that Obama got through Congress as alarmingly right wing.) On education, the US is slipping badly, now far beyond both Western Europe but also large parts of Asia, although Australia is following a similar trajectory if not nearly so bad. (On an anecdotal note, while I immensely enjoy the presence and contributions of US exchange students in my university film studies seminars, by and large their standards and average marks are notably below others, including students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.)
Run by a very narrow clique of corporate interests, the USA is the least democratic society and state in the developed world. The choice faced by voters every two and four years is almost always decided on personality rather than substantive difference, sometimes with a very slight choice on ‘social issues’ but virtually nothing else (including military adventurism, where if anything the Democrats have actually been worse). Chomsky writes that polls over many years show that on an increasing array of central issues a sizeable majority of the population disagree fundamentally with their elected representatives, and nearly always such that the latter are miles to the right of public opinion (for example on issues like the environment, Israel/Palestine, the Cuba blockade, Iran’s right to nuclear power, corporate taxes and the Wall St bailout). Here is a stark case of ‘democracy deficit’: where the will of the people, often long held and well-established through quality polling and research (Americans are endlessly surveyed), is simply not represented by either of the two major parties.
Such a familiar litany of what used to be called ‘underdevelopment’ only partly explains another confronting fact about the object of Australia’s starry-eyed affection with which we supposedly share essential values, although the tendency has been there since the country’s origins as founded by Christian puritans. In stark contrast to Australia and every other Western country (and countless others besides), levels of religious belief in the US are off the chart, comprising a large fundamentalist strain that is elsewhere usually explained by abject poverty, lack of education and no modernity. But the hardliners are not just ‘out there’ in the Bible belt. They also increasingly hold sizable sway in the alternative party of government and are even more prominent amongst those seeking to be president.
With all this, it is no wonder 80% of the population repeatedly say in recent polls that the country is ‘going in the wrong direction’, and that Congress and the President have near or record low approval ratings. The Occupy movement, and to a much lesser extent the Tea Party (now incorporated as the even more extreme right wing of the Republican Party), gives genuine voice to a long-brewing anger that finally boiled over with the financial crisis and bailout. Far from ‘not standing for anything’, their threat of more genuine democracy and a radical remaking of the social contract between rulers and ruled is taken very seriously indeed by those that matter, as seen in the escalating and increasingly orchestrated violence used by police against entirely peaceful protesters. In both cases the only surprise was that it took so long.
If the US is in crisis at home, the global situation is more complex. Yet like the rise of China, the decline of America in the world is both real in certain important respects (cutting an increasingly lonely figure at the UN, the US has had most of its military forces and political operatives booted out of nearly all Latin American countries for example) also greatly exaggerated. While we have seen the increasing development of multiple centres of regional power, influence and cooperation (such as that recently established in Latin America), together or alone no one anywhere near matches the ‘winner’ of the Cold War where it counts: military dominance, with the US spending nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. But such is the resources and labyrinthine network needed to maintain the greatest power in history. These are the facilities, combined with crucial political contacts, influence, and secret interference, which have enabled the US to carry out a sustained war on independence and democracy around the globe.
Such is the power needed to repeatedly and violently interfere in others’ affairs. Media reporting of George Papandreou’s clearly outrageous plan to actually put the fait accompli rescue package to the Greek people at a referendum should have reminded us that utter contempt for democracy has a bitter history for the country of its Western birth, whose people have twice since 1945 endured violent military dictatorships installed or backed by the USA. While democracy can be tolerated within the enormous sphere of US influence if the government pursues policies in the empire’s overall economic and ‘strategic’ interests, should they fail to do so the result will often be decades of military ‘intervention’, funding of terrorism, or ‘covert operations’ engineering violent coups that install murderous pro-Western dictatorships (first perfected with the US destruction of democracy in Iran in 1953).
By very odd synchronicity, another but very different kind of famous American was in our country just prior to Obama, with Chomsky himself speaking to really huge crowds and receiving the Sydney Peace Prize as presented by long-time Aboriginal leader and activist Patrick Dodson. Although his lengthy visit was ignored by mainstream press and TV (aside from Fairfax’s publishing a short version of the sell-out Town Hall speech), Chomsky is the most admired and deeply loved American in large parts of the globe – especially those sizable chunks who have felt the wrath of US power. He has long argued that his nation is the largest terrorist force in the world for its rampant destruction of civilian life going right back the slaughter of the north-American indigenous population. That is, he says, if we take seriously the official definitions of terrorism used by the US State Department, army manuals, and in serious scholarship.
This charge not only concerns the most infamous examples of what Chomsky calls ‘wholesale’ state terror – most notably in Indochina between 1960 and 1973, where US (and Australian) troops and historically unprecedented bombing killed millions of people, most of them civilians in full knowledge of the fact, almost destroying South Vietnam in the process, as well as carpet bombing Laos and Cambodia – but also the backing, funding and encouragement of countless domestic terrorist groups around the world and the barbarous actions of the military juntas they install. The biggest act of direct state-funded terrorism very close to home has been the endless aggression committed against Latin America for over a century, a sustained assault by one nation of its much poorer neighbours. (Some of the more notorious examples of such epic one-way violence, its political design and long-lasting impact, are detailed in John Pilger’s very successful 2007 film The War on Democracy.) This reached a peak with the decades-long terrorist war on Cuba and the support of brutal militia and military governments throughout the region peaking in the 1980s – a process Ronald Reagan rationalised with the now familiar and truly Orwellian phrase ‘The War on Terror’.
If this all sounds like rank ‘Anti-American’ paranoia, consider that as a result of the initially secret funding of Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and mining the country’s harbours, in 1984 the USA became the first country to be condemned for international terrorism at the International Court of Justice. Finding that it was ‘in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State’, ‘not to intervene in its affairs’, ‘not to violate its sovereignty’, and ‘not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce’, the Court’s finding was naturally dismissed out of hand by Washington, and is today almost never mentioned. But the world’s Mafia can ignore any law (even where also breaking its own, as was the case here), so the terror against Nicaragua continued for the rest of the decade.
Chomsky argues the real threat to American power is ultimately not a question of ideology. During different periods, the US has allied itself with all kinds of governments, democratic or otherwise (even on rare occasions, communist). Contra the rhetoric then, a country is a problem not because its government is socialist, Islamic, or whatever, but rather if it has the gall to assert self-determination – Chomsky’s phrase is ‘independent nationalism’ – in a way that is not in the US’s interests. This is the Mafia principle at work:
The Godfather does not tolerate "successful defiance," even from a small storekeeper who fails to pay protection money. It is too dangerous. It must therefore be stamped out, and brutally, so that others understand that disobedience is not an option. Successful defiance of the Master could be a "virus" that will "spread contagion," to borrow Kissinger's term when he was preparing the overthrow of [Chile’s] Allende government.
It is in the above context that we need to understand the US response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In his best-selling book on the topic released shortly afterwards (and recently updated), and copious interviews conducted in the days and weeks following, Chomsky unambiguously describes it as an atrocity – in terms of a single event’s sheer numbers, probably the worst single act of terrorism committed in decades – then goes on to explain that what the US suffered was essentially what it had been doing to the rest of the world for years.
In many cases the results have actually been far worse, if we adjust the numbers to reflect percentage of the population but even more radically so in terms of what actually happened as a result of US-supported terror, the lasting effects of which can scar a society for decades. The most apposite example Chomsky often cites is the much less known story of the ‘first Chilean ‘September 11’ of 1973 when Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government was overthrown in a US-backed military coup. Not only did military planes with US support successfully bomb the presidential palace, but democracy itself was destroyed in Chile by a murderous coup ousting the elected president, who died in the process, installing a horrific military dictatorship that reigned for over two decades, during which countless thousands were killed or imprisoned without charge, and radical policies designed by Milton Friedman in Chicago were enacted that brought most of the population to abject levels of poverty. (The causes and effects of this terrible true story are most famously presented and analysed in Patricio Guzmán’s masterful multi-part documentary film The Battle of Chile, shot on the streets of Santiago at the time then edited over many years in Cuban exile. In its DVD incarnation a very sad coda filmed two decades later is added, entitled ‘Chile, Obstinate Memory’, which demonstrates the scars such an event causes literally for generations.) Chomsky’s moral challenge should be simple but is apparently outrageous: Imagine the response if all this was reversed and it happened to ‘us’.
As you would guess by Australia’s participation in every war waged by the USA since Korea (even the usually on-board Brits, a much older Mafia Don, said a polite ‘No’ to the new Godfather’s murderous plan for Vietnam) alongside with the mass proliferation of Hollywood and American TV here, we have long been obsessed with the USA. This was on display in spades during Obama’s visit now that we can re-declare our love wholeheartedly with the purported passing of the Bush era. But as newspaper columnist Mike Carleton suggested of the hoopla surrounding the Obama trip, while it might have been natural enough decades ago to love America (I myself thought Fonzie from Happy Days and Paul Stanley from Kiss were the coolest guys on the planet, when I was eight), thinking people should really grow out of such a teenage crush if they have any grasp of reality.
Yet while there is no doubt Australians are on the whole pro-American, a clear democratic deficit seems to be occurring here when it comes to the increased ‘strengthening of the alliance’. Polls are showing the majority happy with the previous level of reliance on the US and the next highest number (24 %) think we are too close, while only 3% feel it’s not enough. Did we ever get a say in the new arrangements announced by Obama and our Prime Minister? Is it ever an issue our rulers consider worthy of democratic consultation? This crucial decision, which could have very real and decisive affects on Australia’s future, was not even debated in parliament – which at least the Australian Greens are now calling for, plus moves towards a properly independent foreign policy. Another poll shows that the vast majority of Australians think our future is tied to Asia rather than the US, so why are further alienating our neighbours exactly?
What Obama has done in concert with Gillard, as Indonesia’s foreign minister warned, is risk provoking a regional arms race, which means with China. Obama’s message – and therefore also our own – was essentially, to quote a friend (with expletives replaced) who lived in Beijing for three years: ‘China needs to get back in its box, because we still rule the Asia-Pacific (even if we are a long way away in term of actual geography) and if anyone wants to challenge our hegemony, we will bomb them with Australia’s help.’ A severe critic of the Chinese Government, he added: ‘No one has answered how US marines and B-52 bombers being stationed now on Australian soil will help rather than severely hinder our “security”.’
Again, none of this is to be ‘anti-American’. All great imperial powers will, it seems, behave like the Mafia given half a chance. In the past it was Ancient Rome, much more recently Britain and France, and in the 20th Century the USSR within its heavily limited direct sphere of influence. But the USA puts them all to shame – not for total deaths caused, but the rampant invading of others’ realms and the brazen insistence that it is somehow not like all the rest, not an empire drenched in blood. If or when China – or whoever else – becomes as powerful as the US has been since 1945, they may well be just as bad as a result of the desire for absolute dominance.
However, for all the ridiculously exaggerated and hypothetical talk about Chinese power, often analysed and critiqued in scholarly circles (such as Renee Jeffrey in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, whose argument Eltham summarises as ‘the whole "China threat" hypothesis is overblown’), in such matters it is best to address reality as it is and with recent history as our guide instead of a near future forged by ideologically fevered imaginations. Rather than a rampantly expansionist China (or the more unambiguously hated Iran, a nation that with the exception of some tiny islands has not invaded anyone for centuries), the historical precedence is all in the other direction. It is we who do the invading, occupying and terrorism around the world, and on a truly operatic scale. As the blockbuster movie Avatar unwittingly demonstrates, violence is always wrong – unless we are the ones leading the fight, in which case it is morally superb no matter how many people die. Only under these crucial conditions does the maxim spoken by Charlie Chaplin at the end of his controversial 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux hold sublimely true: ‘If you kill one man you are a murderer; if you kill a thousand, you are a hero.’
‘The United States of America has no stronger ally than Australia’, said Obama. And just like Bush, he was correct. Rather than growing out it (of which there were some very promising signs during the 1972-5 period in which Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister), successive governments’ teenage fascination with the world’s only superpower has exponentially deepened, irrespective of both public and specialist opinion and democratic processes. But this has been going on for so long – Australia has been imploring Washington to invest in a base with permanent troops here since the 1960s – that we really can’t blame the Americans so much as ourselves. True to the still disavowed violence of our origins as a far-flung British colony, Australia’s traditional fear of both our region and the world is quite pathological. Far from expanding the fetishized and quite religious alliance with the greatest and therefore most violent power in history, if we were guided by basic moral standards and facts over obsequiousness and fear, a properly adult nation would rip it up.