The Audacity of Imperial Airbrushing: Barack Obama’s Whitewashed History of U.S. Foreign Policy and Why it Matters
“IT NEVER HAPPENED”
Under the rules of “mainstream” political discourse in the United States, crimes are committed by evil others, never by noble “America.” Bad things are done by “them,” but not by “us.” “They” often have malevolent intent but “we” are fundamentally good, driven by the highest and most noble objectives: peace, democracy, and liberty.
From the end of World War Two through the present, the U.S. Empire has caused “the extinction and suffering of countless human beings. The United States,” John Pilger notes, “attempted to overthrow fifty governments, many of them democracies, and to crush thirty popular movements fighting tyrannical regimes. In the process, twenty-five countries were bombed, causing the loss of several million lives and the despair of millions more” (John Pilger, Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire [New York: Nation Books, 2007], pp. 4-5].
The leading imperial crimes include a massive U.S. assault on the peasant nation of Vietnam – an epic attack that killed 3 million Indochinese – and a continuing illegal invasion of oil-rich Mesopotamia. The latter attack has led to the premature death of 1.2 million Iraqis. .
But in the U.S, and indeed across much of the West, the record of this ongoing criminality is airbrushed out from official history and the mass culture. It is tossed down George Orwell’s “memory hole,” consistent with Big Brother’s dictum in Nineteen Eighty Four: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” As Harold Pinter noted in his biting acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, dominant Western cultural authorities behave as if “it never happened.” When it comes to America’s saga of monumental transgression against civilized norms and international law, “nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening,” Pinter added, “it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest” (quoted in Pilger, Freedom Next Time, p. 4).
Dominant U.S.-led Western cultural codes mandate that the only victims worthy of acknowledgement and compassion are those assaulted by officially designated enemies. The larger number victimized by us and our clients and allies (e.g., the Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation and apartheid) do not merit consideration, sympathy, or even acknowledgement. They didn’t happen. They don’t exist.
Beyond the question of historical accuracy, the problem here is that powerful nations who deny the occurrence of past transgressions are likely to commit new ones.
DENONCING WRIGHT, PRAISING GEORGE I’S WAR ON IRAQ
Which brings us to the avowed “American exceptionalist”  Barack Obama, who enjoys support from a large number of so-called left-liberal voters who want very badly to believe that he is a “progressive” opponent of American war, imperialism and militarism. As he has shown in his comments denouncing Reverend Jeremiah Wright and praising the military “service” of John McCain, Obama is more than ready to wipe “magical” America’s historical slate clean when it comes to imperial crimes. Obama denounces Wright because the good Reverend dares to acknowledge and denounce the bloody and dangerous – for states that practice terrorism abroad must expect to face terrorism there and at home – and living American history of imperial atrocity, illegality, and arrogance. McCain is lauded as “American war hero” despite the fact that he was an eager participant in a massive imperial assault on the men, women, and children of a poor peasant nation posed no danger to the people of America.
Speaking in a high school gymnasium in Greensburg, Pa. last April, Obama said he wanted to return America to the more “traditional” foreign policy of such past presidents as “George Bush’s father, or John F. Kennedy,” and “in some respects, Ronald Reagan.” He spoke in flattering and favorable terms of the way George H.W. Bush handled the supposedly virtuous first Persian Gulf War. The Associated Press article reporting this comment was titled “Obama Align Foreign Policy With GOP” – a rebuke to left-liberal writers who argue that the centrist Obama stands to the recognizably progressive side of Hillary Clinton at least on foreign policy.
Nobody in the mainstream commentariat acted on (or likely even remotely felt ) the urge to point out that Bush I’s assault on Iraq involved heinous Superpower butchery, including the bombing and bulldozing to death of thousands of surrendered Iraqi soldiers and the decision to let Saddam Hussein slaughter Kurds and Shiites the U.S. had initially encouraged to rebel. Iraq is still dealing with epidemic cancers caused by American deployment of depleted uranium in the first one-sided Iraq “war,” described by many participants as a one-sided “turkey shoot.”
As Obama knows, such crimes never happened. They are of no interest.
“THE HOPE OF A YOUNG LIEUTENANT BRAVELY PATROLLING THE MEKONG DELTA”
Obama’s eagerness to whitewash the dark record of U.S. foreign policy is hardly just a 2008 thing. Take a look at the following passage from his instantly famous Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention (the one that catapulted him to overnight celebrity), where he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of "hope:"
“I'm not talking about blind optimism here - the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too...In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.”
The “young naval lieutenant line" was a reference to John F. Kerry's participation in the invasion of South Vietnam. It took no small chutzpah for Obama to lump African-American slaves' struggles and spirituality with the racist U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. Perhaps "God" gave Nazi executioners and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for “better days ahead.”
It was not clear who or what told Obama that the Mekong Delta was Kerry and his superiors’ territory to "patrol.” Perhaps it was the same arrogant, nationalist and racist sensibilities that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own slaves and murder and steal land from Mexico and the indigenous first “American” nations and which allowed the Bush administration to attempt to seize Iraq as a colonial possession.
THE WONDERFUL WORK OF THOSE WISE WHITE WILSONIANS
Obama’s eager willingness to whitewash U.S. foreign policy history in accord with the Orwellian requirements of dominant imperial canon was demonstrated in the foreign relations chapter of his bestselling 2006 campaign book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” (New York: Crown, 2006). Bearing the grandiose title “The World Beyond Our Borders,” this chapter displayed rigid acceptance of the doctrinal notion that the United States’ foreign policies have long and consistently advanced “shared ideas of freedom” and the “rule of law” and “international institutions.” It praised the wonderful (for Obama) “post-[World War Two] leadership of president Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall and George Kennan” for “craft[ing]...a new...order that married [Woodrow] Wilsonian idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of American power with a humility regarding America’s ability to control events around the world” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 284). The benevolent, wise “Wilsonian” architects of the postwar Pax Americana, Obama claimed in “Audacity,” sought a “democratic” world order in which the U.S. countered the limitless “totalitarian” Soviet threat and “signaled a willingness to show restraint in the exercise of its power” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 285).
This was remarkably sterile and reactionary commentary on such memorable moments in American “humility” as the arch-criminal atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (mass-murderous shots across the bow of the emerging Cold War), the enormous imperial assaults on Korea and Indochina (millions of “enemy” civilians dead), the U.S. restoration of fascist power in “liberated” Italy, the intervention against popular social revolution in Greece (smeared as a Soviet export by U.S. policymakers in order to “Scare the Hell out of the American people” to garner support for massive new imperial “defense” expenditures) and the U.S. subversion of democracy and national independence across the planet. Iran (1953), Dominican Republic (1965), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1970-1973), Indonesia (1965) are just some of the more spectacular examples in a list that goes on and on.
Washington consistently justified its remarkable record of global criminality after World War II with a great enabling myth that Obama eagerly embraces: the existence of a Soviet Union willing and able “to spread [in Obama’s words] its totalitarian brand of communism” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 204). Under the guise of protecting the world from that imperially useful but non-existent threat – honest U.S. assessments acknowledged that the real Soviet danger was that USSR modeled the possibility of independent national development outside the parameters of U.S.-led world-capitalist supervision and indicating an impermissible refusal “to complement the industrial economies of the West” (William Yandell Elliot, ed., The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy [New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1955], p. 42; Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy [New York: Hill and Wang, 1991], p.26) – Obama’s “hardheaded” “Wilsonians” ordered the murder (preferably via proxy agents like the Indonesian Suharto regime and the Shah of Iran) of untold “Third World” millions.
Humble “restraint” in the “exercise of [U.S.] power” is not the first description that comes into the mind of one who takes an honest and comprehensive look at that troubling record.
It was all very consistent with the “idealistic” history of the actual (Woodrow) Wilson administration, whose “extreme racism” (Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996], p. 44) found grisly expression in the brutal U.S. invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As Noam Chomsky observes, “Wilson’s troops murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery and demolished the constitutional system in Haiti.” These actions followed in accord with Wilson Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s belief that “the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization” and possessed “an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature.” As Chomsky notes, “while supervising the takeover of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Wilson built his reputation as a lofty idealist defending self-determination and the rights of small nations with impressive oratory. [But] there is no contradiction [because] Wilsonian doctrine was restricted to people of the right sort: those ‘at a low stage of civilization’ need not apply” for the rights of democracy and self-determination (Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues [Boston, MA: South End, 1993], pp. 202-203).
Racism aside, Lansing said that the effective meaning of the Monroe Doctrine was simply that “the United States considers its own interests. The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end” (Lansing is quoted in Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants [Berkeley, CA: 1992], p. 11). Wilson agreed, but found it politically unwise to say so publicly.
Such high “idealistic” sentiments certainly informed a noble Wilsonian intervention against the Russian Revolution in 1918 and 1919.
Of course, none of this non-existent history prevents Obama from praising Wilson for seeing that “it was in America’s interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples and provide the world a legal framework that could help avoid future conflicts” (Obama, Audacity, p. 283).
“OUR STRUGGLE AGAINST FASICSM”
Historical deletion was a major problem with an essay Obama published in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2007. Titled “Renewing America’s Leadership,” this 5000-word article began by praising Franklin Delano Roosevelt for “buil[ding] the most formidable military the world had ever known” and for giving “purpose to our struggle against fascism” with his “Four Freedoms.”
Much of Obama’s treatise was dedicated to the erasure of Washington’s past imperial criminality. “At moments of great peril in the last century,” Obama wrote, “American leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy managed both to protect the American people and to expand opportunity for the next generation. What is more, they ensured that America, by deed and example, led and lifted the world – that we stood for and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond our borders.”
It was interesting that Obama’s essay never named the “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of worship. One likely explanation for that deletion was that U.S policymakers from Roosevelt II through Kennedy (and beyond) regularly violated most of them in the enforcement of their particular imperial concept of the “national interest.” During the middle and late 1930s, US policymakers helped enable the rise of European fascism that culminated in Hitler’s march of terror. The US watched with approval as Fascist darkness set over Europe during the inter-war years. American policymakers saw Italian, Spanish, German and other strains of the European fascist disease as a welcome counters to “the Soviet threat” – essentially the demonstration Russia made of the possibilities for national outside the capitalist world system – and to Left movements, parties and related social-democratic policy drifts within Western Europe.
In 1937, Roosevelt’s U.S. State Department’s European Division argued that European fascism was compatible with America’s economic interests. This key diplomatic agency reported that fascism’s rise was a natural response of “the rich and middle classes” to the threat posed by “dissatisfied masses,” who, with the “the example of the Russian Revolution before them,” might “swing to the left.” Fascism, the State Department argued, “must succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle class, will again turn to the left.” The French Popular Front government of the middle 1930s was an example of the democratic socialist threat that made German fascism acceptable to American officials before Hitler launched his drive for a New World Order (Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy [New York: Hill and Wang, 1991], p. 41).
It is true that Nazi Germany became an avowed U.S. enemy during WWII. This did not occur, however, until fascism, holding power in two leading rival industrial states, directly attacked U.S. interests. American policymakers intervened against fascism on the basis of perceived national self-interest, not out of any particular concern for the human rights of the French or, for that matter, European Jews or anyone else (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States [New York: HarperPerennial, 2003], pp. 407-410; Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, pp. 37-42).
“OUR REAL TASK”
But back to noble America’s compassionate “restraint in the exercise of its power” in the post-WWII era that was so beautifully guided by the likes of George Kennan and Dean Acheson. After the “good war,” America’s accommodation of European and Asian fascism in the inter-war period became something of a model for U.S. Third World policy. In the name of resisting supposedly expansionist Soviet influence and “communism,” the U.S. sponsored, funded, equipped, and provided political cover for numerous “Third World fascist” regimes. In doing so, it enlisted and protected numerous Nazi War criminals (e.g. Klaus Barbie) deemed to possess useful anti-Left “counter-insurgency” skills (Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, pp. 14-25).
To grasp some of the “hardheaded realism” behind such U.S. Cold War policies as the sponsorship of vicious military dictatorships in Indonesia, Iran, Greece and Brazil (to name just a few “Free World” partners), we can consult an interesting formulation from Obama’s wise “Wilsonian” hero George Kennan. As Kennan explained in Policy Planning Study 23, crafted for the State Department in 1948:
“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…to do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives...We should cease to talk about vague and …unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
Later Kennan would explain the need to crush those who refused to serve U.S. interests in the Third World (defined as “communists”) by any means necessary: “The final answer might be an unpleasant one, but...we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government. This is not shameful since the Communists are traitors...It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists” (quoted in Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, p. 11).
The directly and indirectly U.S.-slaughtered millions of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia (the last were victims of what Obama’s Audacity of Hope charitably called a “morally rudderless” U.S. bombing campaign ) and Central America stand as grisly but – inside the “inverted totalitarian” United States (see Sheldon Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) and much of the West – officially invisible testimony to Uncle Sam’s marvelous “restraint.” And so do the countless other Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who suffered under oppressive dictatorships and ruling classes routinely funded and equipped by “the watchtower on the walls of freedom” (as Obama’s hero John Fitzgerald Kennedy once described the United States) in the name of the mythic battle against messianic Soviet expansionism – victims of what Obama’s Audacity of Hope called the United States’ “occasional encouragement of tyranny...when it served out interests(Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 279).
Such “unworthy victims” of U.S. foreign policy stand as tragic historical testimony to the dark secret behind the United States’ passionately declared commitment to “democracy” during the Cold War: the United States supported popular governance and national self determination abroad only in the rare incidents when and where (never and nowhere or close to it) these principles were deemed consistent with “American” global aims determined by the U.S. power elite.
The officially nonexistent historical casualty roster includes murdered East-Timorese masses butchered by a nearly genocidal Indonesian invasion that the Gerald Ford White House approved and could have prevented with one phone call. It was a call that Ford and his secretary of State Henry Kissinger restrained themselves from making. Obama deleted the Timor atrocities from his reflections in “The Audacity of Hope” on what he learned about “Indonesia’s subsequent history” after he lived in that country as a young boy during the 1960s. In Obama’s world view, as in that of his Harvard friend and former foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, American crimes generally don’t exist. They didn’t happen .
“THE BIGGEST CASUALTY OF THAT WAR”
Obama’s nationalistic and whitewashed take on the history of U.S. foreign relations was starkly evident in “The Audacity of Hope’”s reflections on the Vietnam War, an illegal U.S. invasion that killed at least 3 million Indochinese. By Obama’s disturbing account:
“The disastrous consequences of that conflict – for our credibility and prestige abroad, for our armed forces (which would take a generation to recover), and most of all for those who fought – have been amply documented. But perhaps the biggest casualty of that war was the bond of trust between the American people and their government – and between American themselves. As a consequence of a more aggressive press corps and the images of body bags flooding into the living rooms, Americans began to realize that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing – and didn’t always tell the truth. Increasingly, many on the left voiced opposition not only to the Vietnam War but also to the broader aims of American foreign policy. In their view, President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the CIA, the ‘military industrial complex,’ and international institutions like the World Bank were all manifestations of American arrogance, jingoism, racism, capitalism and imperialism. Those on the right responded in kind, laying responsibility for the loss of Vietnam but also for the decline of America’s standing in the world squarely on the ‘blame America’ first crowd – the protestors, the hippies, Jane Fonda, the Ivy League intellectuals and liberal media” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, pp. 287-288)
“The Audacity of Hope”  left it to alienated carpers of the “moral absolutist” (Obama’s description of both the New Left and the New Right) Left to point out that Vietnam wasn’t America’s to “lose” and that the massive U.S assault on Indochina reflected U.S. foreign policy aims of subordinating Third World development to the perceived needs of U.S-supervised world capitalist order. It was left to deranged radicals to point out that the one-sided “war” was ordered by elites who were criminal – not just stupid or ignorant – and that many of the policy makers did “know [very well] what they were doing”: murdering Vietnam
As for the supposed tragic fraying of the “bond of trust between the American people and their government,” many “unrealistic” leftists (this author included) have sound reasons to think that the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” – the often skeptical attitude of many Americans towards the militaristic pronouncements and war plans of their foreign policy “leaders” – is a very healthy thing. It’s a welcome development, many progressives believe, whenever US citizens subject “their” foreign policy establishment to skeptical, even “distrustful” scrutiny. It’s much to be applauded, many of us think, that during the late 1960s and early 1970s much of the American populace turned against a bloody colonial war in which “Fortunate Son” children of the “elite” were deemed too privileged to “serve.” It’s fantastic, many Americans rightly believe, that part of the population came to grasp the class and related racial domestic bases of the imperialism that Obama’s campaign book portrayed as the mythological creation of left “caricature” (The Audacity of Hope, p. 288).
“The Audacity of Hope” neglected to note that the previous supposed “bond of trust” (whose dissolution Obama mourned) between the people and “their” government was based largely on establishment lies calculated to “scare the Hell of the American people” (US Senator Vandenburg in 1947) with crassly exaggerated global Soviet and “Communist” threats. The deceptions were meant to induce the U.S. populace to cower under the umbrella of the National Security State and to accept on faith the global and domestic proclamations of the American system’s wise and benevolent managers.
Obama left it to irrelevant radicals and hopeless arch-iconoclasts to note that his frequently invoked icon Dr. Martin Luther King was among those “on the left” who saw the Vietnam War as an expression of the United States’ broader imperialism and racism and of its related captivity to what former U.S. president and World War II Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower identified as the military industrial complex – a very real and easily identifiable political-economic entity that deserves to be mentioned without sarcastic quotations marks around it.
Also left for “unreasonable” “zealots” of the “unrealistic” radical fringe to note was the inconvenient truth that the “biggest casualt[ies]” of the remarkably one-sided Vietnam “war” – an exercise in imperial aggression that was fought entirely on illegally invaded Vietnamese (and Cambodian and Laotian) soil – was suffered by the people of Vietnam. The terrible U.S. GI body count (58,000 during the war and more through suicide since) pales before the millions of Vietnamese killed and the related astonishing damage done to Indochinese villages, cities, infrastructure, ecology, and agriculture. The number of South Vietnamese civilians killed just in the CIA’s “Operation Phoenix” torture and assassination program was equivalent to 45 percent of the U.S. death total in Vietnam.
With perhaps as many 700,000 Iraqis killed by “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by the time “The Audacity of Hope” became a U.S. bestseller, moreover, the people of Iraq could be forgiven if they didn’t share Obama’s sense that it was a good thing for the U.S. Armed Forces to have “recover[ed]” after Vietnam.
As for Obama’s daring observation that Vietnam indicated that U.S. foreign policy makers “didn’t always tell the truth” (p. 287), it must be one of the most understated observations of elementary reality in the recorded history of campaign literature.
“OUR OWN DEFENSE DEPARTMENT” V. THAT CRAZY RADICAL JESUS
The same perverse Orwellian historical deletion and distortion that characterized “The Audacity of Hope’s” foreign policy chapter has been repeated again and again in Obama’s various foreign policy speeches and in his Foreign Affairs essay. In all of these and other venues, Obama has been willing to function as what Pilger calls “the voice of the Council on Foreign Relations.”
Here is a typical proclamation from Obama’s voluminous record of imperial pronouncements beyond just his book: "At moments of great peril in the past century our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedom sought by billions of people beyond their borders."
“That,” John Pilger noted in Chicago last year, “is the nub of the propaganda, the brainwashing if you like, that seeps into the lives of every American, and many of us who are not Americans.”
One of my (least) favorite Obama comments on U.S. foreign policy came in a speech that wasn’t dedicated to that topic per se. At one point in his 2006 “Call to Renewal” conference keynote address on religious values, Obama inserted an interesting remark into a section of his address that criticized literalist interpretations of Christian scripture by noting that the Bible contains some truly wacky judgments and pronouncements:
“And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, of we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage so radical that is doubtful our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles.” (Barack Obama, “Call to Renewal Keynote Address,” Washington D.C., June 28, 2006, read at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal/index.php).
The “Sermon on the Mount” appears in the book of Matthew in the New Testament. It includes the following aphorisms from Jesus:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall attain mercy.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you.”
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”
“But whoever slaps you on your right check, turn the other to him also...”
“Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you.”
“Take heed you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth...for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”
“Whatever you want men to do, do also to them.”
The problem with Obama’s comment wasn’t that he sensed contradiction between these sayings and the actions of the U.S. Pentagon. It is an understatement to say that the history of U.S. military behavior does not look terribly good in light of these statements. With millions of overseas civilians corpses as a result, “Christian” America’s military and foreign policy over the last century and more – firmly dedicated to the expansion and preservation of the Few’s “treasures on earth – the last half century and more stands as a gruesome and monumental rejection of these and other maxims in Jesus’ mountain-top speech to “the multitudes.”
The real difficulty with Obama’s aside is that he found that long-haired Sixties “radical” Jesus’ pacifism and egalitarianism so over the top that they actually – imagine – lead one to question the benevolence and wisdom of “OUR OWN DEFENSE DEPARTMENT” – as if the U.S. Pentagon was and is some sort of generally understood paragon of global peace and justice.
The majority of morally and politically cognizant humanity disagrees, pointing to the millions of victims of U.S. Empire – the countless faceless masses of killed and suffering humans who “didn’t happen,” who don’t exist, and who are “of no interest” within the tragically narrow moral parameters of U.S. and Western political culture. By the nationally narcissistic American exceptionalist perspective of Obama’s “Call to Renewal” address, this disagreement is on moral and intellectual part with supporting slavery or calling for the stoning of insufficiently religious 10-year-olds.
LET’S “STOP TRYING TO PUT IRAQ BACK TOGETHER”
Building on his denial of past U.S. criminality, candidate Obama’s foreign policy pronouncements have been loaded with promises of future criminality under an Obama administration. Obama’s Foreign Affairs essay gave explicit reasons for people and states beyond U.S. borders to fear the prospect of an Obama White House. “The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew,” Obama proclaimed, adding that “we must lead the world by deed and by example” and “must not rule out using military force” in pursuit of “our vital interests.”
The last three words harkened back to another Democratic imperialist’s “Carter Doctrine,” which updated the Monroe Doctrine for the global petro-capitalist era to include the Persian Gulf region in the United States’ inviolable sphere of special interest and unilateral action). They constitute a code phrase with a useful imperial translation: “other nations' oil,” located primarily in the Middle East.
“A strong military,” Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, “is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace.” We must “revitalize our military” (to foster “peace”), Obama declared, partly by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines. Here the junior Senator from Illinois echoed George Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state of Oceana, which proclaimed that “War is Peace” and “Love is Hate.”
And then Obama gave reasons to expect future unilateral and “preemptive” wars and occupations carried out in the name of the “war on terror” by an Obama White House. “We must retain the capacity to swiftly defeat any conventional threat to our country and our vital interests,” Obama pronounced. “But we must also become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale.” Reassuring the bipartisan imperialist establishment that he will not be hamstrung by international law and civilized norms when “our vital interests” (other peoples’ petroleum, primarily) are "at stake," Obama added that “I will not hesitate to use force unilaterally, if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests wherever we are attacked or imminently threatened.”
“We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense,” Obama added, “in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability -- to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities” (Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online at http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html).
As Glen Ford has observed, Obama has gone “out of his way to prove” that he is “no peace candidate” (Glen Ford, “Barack Obama the Warmonger,” Black Agenda Report, August 8, 2007, read at www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=305&Itemid=34). To be more precise, Obama has gone to elaborate lengths to prove his imperial credentials to the foreign policy establishment while posing as a peace candidate to the more gullible and less informed but predominantly antiwar voting majority. As part of that project, Obama studiously avoids any explicit reference to the blatant criminality and illegality of Bush’s War on Iraq – a war that he promises (between the lines of his shifting, cunning, calibrated and deceptive rhetoric on “withdrawal”) to continue.
He even claims, absurdly, that Bush II’s transparently petro-imperialist and colonial invasion was motivated by a desire to “export democracy through the barrel of a gun” and even “to create a Jeffersonian democracy.” Last February, Obama told autoworkers in Janesville, Wisconsin that “It's time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together” (WIFR Television, CBS 23, Rockford, Illinois, “Obama Speaks at General Motors in Janesville,” February 13, 2008, read at http://www.wifr.com/morningshow/headlines/15618592.html).
Yes, “trying to put Iraq back together.”
As Iraq was being pushed to the margins of the Democratic presidential debate (and of mainstream news) last January, the people of that occupied state suffered under the weight of what amounted to a U.S.-imposed Holocaust. While the media obsessed about a slightly racialized soap opera conflict between Hillary and Obama, Tom Engelhardt noted the following:
“Whether civilian dead between the invasion of 2003 and mid-2006 (before the worst year of civil-war level violence even hit) was in the range of 600,000 as a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet reported, or 150,000 as a recent World Health Organization study suggests, whether two million or 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, whether 1.1 million or more than two million have been displaced internally, whether electricity blackouts and water shortages have marginally increased or decreased, whether the country's health-care system is beyond resuscitation or could still be revived, whether Iraqi oil production has nearly crept back to the low point of the Saddam Hussein-era or not, whether fields of opium poppies are, for the first time, spreading across the country's agricultural lands or still relatively localized, Iraq is a continuing disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt, “The Corpse on the Gurney: the Success Mantra in Iraq,” Antiwar.com, January 18, 2008, read at www.antiwar.com/engelhardt/?articleid=12229).
According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in the December 2007 edition of the mainstream journal Current History, “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century. Only fools talk of solutions now. There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained” (Nir Rosen, “The Death of Iraq,” Current History, December 2007, p. 31).
AIRBRUSHING AND CHERRY-PICKING
As Obama’s comments on Iraq suggest, it matters a great deal when top U.S. elected officials and candidates delete and deny past U.S crimes. Those in global power who fail to acknowledge the imperial crimes of the past are likely to repeat them in the present and future.
After reviewing Obama’s biblical reflections and “The Audacity of Hope’s” musings on the supposedly noble and benevolent, democratic record of past U.S. foreign policy – scarred only by occasional “strategic blunders” (but not moral crimes) like the Vietnam and Iraq Wars – I was reminded of an argument advanced by Chris Hedges in his book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2006). It will not do, Hedges argued, for “mainstream Christians” who are appalled by the Christian Right’s militaristic use of scripture to “cherry pick the Bible to create a Jesus and God who are always loving and compassionate. Such Christians,” Hedges noted, “often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right.”
The Bible is loaded with such material, Hedges observed. Some of the worst is found in the Book of Revelation, which portrays a final and bloody battle between the forces of Good – led by a Warrior Christ that would make the messianic militarist and Middle Eastern Crusader George W. Bush proud – and the forces of evil. Concluding with great birds of prey feasting on the flesh of vanquished non-Christians, it is “a story of God’s ruthless, terrifying and violent power unleashed on nonbelievers.”
In Hedges’ view, religious authorities should “denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds...As long as scripture, blessed and accepted by the church, teaches that at the end of the time there will be a day of Wrath and Christians will control the shattered remnants of a world cleansed through violence and war, as long as it teaches that all non-believers will be tormented, destroyed and banished to Hell, it will be hard to thwart the message of radical apocalyptic preachers or assuage the fears of the Islamic world that Christians are calling for its annihilation.”
Christians’ need to stop “airbrushing” the Bible, Hedges argued, if they want to “to assuage the fears of the Islamic world that Christians are calling for its annihilation.” Christians seeking to advance a morally respectable version of their faith must acknowledge and repudiate scriptural passages that justify and promise mass messianic-militarist devastation for supposed spiritual enemies (Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2006), pp. 5, 6, and 7).
A similar point could be made about the dominant civic religion of American exceptionalism at home and abroad. A policy maker who denies the existence and/or relevance of past racism is not a good candidate to seriously address racial oppression in the present. A candidate or office-holder who thinks the American historical story is one of endless progress and opportunity, classlessness, democracy and gentle cultural melding is not in a good position to meaningfully represent, understand and serve disadvantaged people or advance justice and democracy in the present and future. And U.S. presidential hopefuls who trumpet whitewashed perspectives on America's record of global transgression are candidates to advance deadly imperial crimes in the future. Obama’s airbrushing out of past U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality is problematic for reasons that are more than merely academic.
Veteran radical historian Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). His next book "Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" is forthcoming in August and can be advance-ordered at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987.
1. "American exceptionalism” is the nationally narcissistic notion of the United States as a specially benevolent and far-seeing super-state who uses its power only for good and democratic purposes. The United States is seen as an inherently noble “city on the hill” that is beyond significant moral reproach. It is reflexively taken to be a special beacon of democracy and liberty that the world can learn from and emulate. Under “American exceptionalist” doctrine, there can be no serious moral, ideological, or legal criticism of the basic underlying motives, structures (class forces), and actors behind U.S. foreign policy. Obama has proclaimed his belief in American exceptionalism on numerous occasions. An early statement is Barack Obama, “Remarks of Barack Obama at the Knox College Commencement,” June 4, 2005, read at www.barackobama.com.
2. The title of Obama’s audaciously imperial book is lifted from an anti-imperial sermon given by his frankly anti-imperialist and “Afro-Centric” former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Wright’s statements about and against U.S. racism and imperialism (fairly reflective of mainstream sentiment in the black community) have been used by the powerful American right-wing republican noise machine and U.S. corporate media to push the temperamentally and ideologically conservative and centrist Obama further to the right. Last spring, Obama denounced his insufficiently patriotic former minister, who once brought the future presidential candidate to Christianity and who presided over Obama's wedding and the baptism of Obama's children.
3. The main reason for Samantha Power’s popularity in elite U.S. cultural and policy circles is her reflexive blindness to U.S. crimes. In her famous, award-winning book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Problem of Genocide” (New York: Basic, 2002), those monumental transgressions are nearly completely absent and the small number of cases treated are selectively interpreted through the lens of her paradigm asserting that our sole blemish is failing to respond adequately to the sins of others. See Edward S. Herman, “The Cruise Missile Left, Part 5: Samantha Power and the Genocide Gambit,” ZNet Magazine (May 17, 2004), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/8538; Edward S. Herman, “Response to Zinn on Samantha Power,” ZNet Magazine (August 27, 2007), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/14622.