Counterpunch, July 15, 2016
One of Barack Obama’s dirty little secrets when he first ran for the United States presidency was that he was first and foremost an Empire man. Beneath his illusory and carefully crafted brand as an antiwar candidate and behind the primacy of domestic questions (chiefly the onset of the Great Recession and the color of the mixed-race Obama’s skin) in the 2008 election, Obama’s main goal was to sit atop the “Great Game” of global empire. All his stump speaking on “hope” and “change” in the homeland was just fluff on the path to wielding power on the world stage, the main place where the U.S. presidents are free to make history.
Obama’s special passion for imperialism goes back to his days at Columbia University early in the Reagan era. There he fell under the influence of the legendary Russia-hating U.S. imperial strategist and “international relations” professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who would become a top foreign policy adviser for candidate Obama. Like the Strangelovian maestro Brzezinski, Obama opposed George W. Bush’s clumsy invasion of Iraq not because it was a moral and legal crime but because it was bad for imperialism.
Obama’s foreign policy as president has been consistent with Brzezinski’s and other top Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) strategists’ call for the U.S. to shift the focus of its aggression from the Middle East and on to bigger and more dangerous post-/neo-Cold War targets: China and Russia. As the eminent left Australian author, filmmaker, and political commentator John Pilger recently observed in an essay titled “A World War Has Begun”:
“The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone rose higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion…A mini nuclear bomb is planned. It is known as the B61 Model 12. There has never been anything like it…”
“In the last eighteen months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War Two — led by the United States — is taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia…Ukraine – once part of the Soviet Union – has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that is next door and hostile to Russia: a regime rotten with Nazis, literally…In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — next door to Russia – the US military is deploying combat troops, tanks, heavy weapons. This extreme provocation of the world’s second nuclear power is met with silence in the West…”
“What makes the prospect of nuclear war even more dangerous is a parallel campaign against China…Seldom a day passes when China is not elevated to the status of a ‘threat.’ According to Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific commander, China is ‘building a great wall of sand in the South China Sea’…What he is referring to is China building airstrips in the Spratly Islands, which are the subject of a dispute with the Philippines – a dispute without priority until Washington pressured and bribed the government in Manila and the Pentagon launched a propaganda campaign called ‘freedom of navigation’…It means freedom for American warships to patrol and dominate the coastal waters of China. Try to imagine the American reaction if Chinese warships did the same off the coast of California…The United States is encircling China with a network of bases, with ballistic missiles, battle groups, nuclear-armed bombers…This lethal arc extends from Australia to the islands of the Pacific, the Marianas and the Marshalls and Guam, to the Philippines, Thailand, Okinawa, Korea and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India. America has hung a noose around the neck of China.”
Audacious Racism Denial by the Empire’s New Clothes
A second dirty little secret about candidate Obama was that he was a stealth agent of anti-Black U.S. societal racism. He brilliantly absolved the nation of its racist sins, past and present. He heralded and claimed to embody the emergence of a color-blind post-racial nation in which there was no longer any such thing as a “Black America” and a “White America” – only now a “United States of America.” He told rapt listeners that his “story” – of a supposedly unprivileged and Black American man’s climb from confusion and obscurity to the heights of national politics – was “possible only” in “this magical place America,” the purported land of opportunity for all. He craftily elided and figuratively deleted the savage persistence of American anti-Black racism, deeply and properly understood, an oppression structure cloaked by the simple symbolism of his ascendancy. Obama told grateful whites that rage against the continuing plague of racial subjugation was just the pathetic habit of cranky old Black people like Jeremiah Wright. His former minister was unceremoniously tossed under the bus to appease majority white sentiment on the over-ness of racism, though not until Obama had stolen the title of one of the preacher’s angry sermons for the title of the candidate’s imperial and American Exceptionalist campaign book The Audacity of Hope.
“See?” millions of white Americans could almost be heard singing in unison the last seven years, “the President is Black, so Stop Talking About Racism!” With some minor and occasional signs of discomfort and semi-complaint, the nation’s first half-half white chief executive has been happy to play along with the conservative Caucasian narrative. His collaboration with “post-racial,” neoliberal white supremacism has included repeated presidential indulgences of one of his nastier pre-presidential habits: lecturing poor Blacks on their own alleged personal and cultural responsibility for their position at the bottom of the nation’s harsh socioeconomic pyramids (which grew steeper thanks in no small part to his Wall Street-permeated administration’s continuation and expansion of the epic taxpayer bailout of the financial overlords who crashed the economy). Meanwhile, the still highly segregated and extant entity called Black America has experienced an epic decline in net worth, both absolutely and relative to White America. A horrifying epidemic of racist police shootings of mostly young Black men by mostly white cops has come to light under Obama – another great tribute to the post-racial era, along with the persistent epic mass incarceration and felony-marking of Black men, millions of whom have been stripped of economic value by the neoliberal order Obama has always embraced.
Meanwhile, Obama’s color and technically Muslim nomenclature combined with his smooth and telegenic eloquence and outward sophistication to hold great marketing significance for the post-Dubya American Empire. Those critical combined assets made him a darling of the ruling CFR set after he was vetted and cleared for the national stage by elite corporate political gatekeepers in the second half of George W. Bush’s first term. They understood him as an imperial re-labelling boon – a public relations windfall – on a global stage wherein Brand USA had been badly damaged by Cowboy Bush and his Neocon bumblers.
On the Front Lines of World War III
These two of candidate Obama’s dirty secrets (a third one was that he was always a darling of Wall Street and other Big Business elites) collided in curious ways during Obama’s recent trip to Europe. Why was the Obama, the empire’s once new clothes, in Warsaw last week? To attend a summit of NATO’s leaders (he being the top one), who are planning highly provocative and military deployments to Poland and three Baltic states in order to “counter” what the White House absurdly calls “mounting Russian aggression.”
In reality, Russia has undertaken some highly understandable defensive measures to offset mounting U.S.-led Western aggression, which includes a reckless “regional missile defense system” on Russia’s Western borders in Poland and Romania.
It’s imperial, neo-Strangelovian madness right out of the Brzezinski playbook.
“You’re Not Seeing Police Going After People Who Are Protesting Peacefully”
Why was Obama’s summer trip to the Continent cut short, forcing him to apologize to Spanish King Felipe VI? Because a still intensely race-divided and racist America just experienced yet two more high-profile, unnecessary, and videotaped murders of Black men by white police officers: Alton Sterling, senselessly shot while pinned to the ground in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Philando Castile, shot four while reaching for his wallet during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Then came the killing of five white Dallas, Texas police officers by Micah Xavier Johnson, a Black military veteran seeking (if we can believe the Dallas police department’s account of what he said before being killed by a robot-delivered bomb) revenge against “white people” for the killing of Blacks by police.
Johnson was a veteran of candidate Obama and Brzezinski’s Good War – the highly illegal U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the country whose initial destabilization and jihadification Brzezinski helped initiate (under Jimmy Carter) as part of his campaign to unravel the Soviet Union and humiliate Russia.
Johnson was immediately labelled “Micah X. Johnson” by a corporate media eager to make Caucasian-spooking historical parallels with Malcolm X.
Asked about the latest U.S. racial violence at a press conference in Warsaw, Obama did his bourgeois, race-neutral best to downplay the extent of racial discord and anger in the U.S. He said the United States was “not as divided as some have suggested…There is sorrow, there is anger, there is confusion about next steps,” Obama said during a news conference. “But there’s unity” and it wasn’t like the mass social unrest of “the 1960s” he said. “You’re not seeing riots, you’re not seeing police going after people who are protesting peacefully,” Obama added.
“One of the great things about America,” Obama further intoned, “is that individual citizens and groups of citizens can petition their government, can protest, can speak truth to power. And that is sometimes messy and controversial but because of that ability to protest and engage in free speech, America over time has gotten better. We’ve all benefited from that.”
Obama claimed that Johnson’s motives were difficult to know even though the Dallas police reported unequivocally that police killings of Black people had sparked the veteran to hate white Americans and white police officers above all.
If he hasn’t done so yet, the president might want to check out film footage of the Baton Rouge police going in full riot gear after peaceful protesters marching against the Sterling murder. Besides putting the town on a virtual anti-free speech lockdown, the local gendarmes assaulted protesters on the private home of a Black middle class couple that had offered marchers refuge on their front yard and house porch. The images of police in full paramilitary-imperial-NATO-like- war-of (“on”)-terror gear going after people who were protesting peacefully were clear and graphic. As should surprise nobody familiar with his administration’s long record of police state-repression, moreover, the heavy-handed suppression of civil liberties was greenlighted and facilitated by Obama’s Federal Bureau of Investigations. The FBI instructed regional police departments to treat the predictable peaceful protests pretty much as they would an enemy force.
Worthy and Unworthy Victims
Where did the “Consoler in Chief” (as Obama is now described by clever news anchors) rush to speak words of comfort and healing when he returned from his imperial mission to Europe? To Baton Rouge to comfort Alton Sterling’s family and friends? Did he stop in Falcon Heights to mourn Philando Castille? Did he stop off in Chicago to meet with the family of Laquan McDonald, the 17 year who was senselessly butchered by a white police officer who shot him sixteen times? In Staten Island to commiserate with the family of Eric Garner, the Black man who was choked to death by white NYPD officers for selling tax-free cigarettes? To Ferguson, to visit the shrine honoring Mike Brown, the Black teenager who was needlessly shot to death by a white police officer two summers ago, his body left to rot in the hot sun for more than two hours? To Baltimore, to honor the memory of Freddie Gray, his spinal cord fatally damaged by sadistic cops who took him for a “rough ride” handcuffed and unsecured by a seat belt in the back of a police van (a sadistic torture technique practiced by the fictional white NYPD detective Danny Reagan in the popular pro-police state CBS television series “Blue Bloods”)? Cleveland to comfort the parents of the late 12 year-old Tamir Rice? How about Saginaw, Michigan, where six police officers fired a psychotic, up-close fusillade of 46 shots at a mentally disturbed 49-year old Black man named Milton Hall in a shopping center parking lot after Hall half lunged with a small pocketknife at a police dog who was viciously snarling at him in the summer of 2012 (the cops handcuffed him as he bled out on the pavement) ? How about Houston, Texas, to comfort the family of Alva Braziel, a Black man shot down last Saturday with his hands in the air next to a gas station in the southern part of that city? I could continue…list of these killing goes on and on, replenished every other day or so it seems.
No, Obama headed to Dallas, home to the officially worthy victims – the murdered police officers. He offered the usual homilies about how the police are selfless “heroes” of pure “public service” who defend ordinary citizens at great risk to their own personal safety and how protesters need to respect law and authority. Yes, the president mentioned Castille and Sterling by name and even argued (tepidly) for the legitimacy of Black Americans’ sense that racial bias lives on in the American criminal justice system and society more broadly long after the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts half a century ago. Obama talked about how police are expected to “do too much” in Black communities scarred by mass poverty, inadequate schools, and the under-investment of positive resources – all reflections of a long history of racial bias and discrimination going back to Slavery and Jim Crow. He even seemed to accept the term “Black Lives Matter.” White police officers sitting behind the president applauded when he praised police as noble protectors of society but sat stone-faced when he mildly suggested that racial discrimination had yet to completely disappear in the U.S.
God, Country, and Law and Order
Still, the main theme of Obama’s highly scriptures-laden memorial oration was national, post-racial unity, underscored by his references to the military records of the fallen officers and his claim that “we are not as divided as we seem.” (Never mind that the statistics of U.S. racial and class disparity today show that America is if anything more divided, not less divided than it seems.) Obama was not about to be out-Reaganed/Republicaned by his fellow speaker the ridiculous George W. Bush when it came to making the standard bipartisan invocations to God, Country, Family, the Military, Police, and Law and Order. The deep and savage racism and racialized classism of the United States – all too dangerously veiled by the ascendancy of white-capitalist-and imperialist-power-friendly Black elites like Obama and Dallas’ now media-lauded Christian police chief – were naturally off the table of serious discussion. The white officers at the memorial speech loved it when Obama proclaimed that “there is evil in the world…That’s why we have police.” It was unthinkable that the president might acknowledge that modern police forces exist not so much to defend all of us (“one nation under God” regardless of race, class, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, etc.) against “evil” and “bad guys” as to defend the nation’s reigning, overlapping, and interrelated hierarchies of race, place, property, class, nationality, and ethnicity. And to keep extant Black America in its place – really in in its interrelated socioeconomic and geographic places, separate and unequal.
American Emperors and Their Homeland Tightrope
As Obama’s meek liberal defenders always remind us, it is “politically impossible” for him or any other Democratic politician to be anything like seriously forthright about the depth and degree of American racism. He’s “walking a difficult tightrope” on race. The right-wing media and noise machine jumps all over anything that might be construed to sound remotely race-militant, turning such language to the advantage of the white-nationalist GOP.
That’s all true enough, but Barack Obama has never shown anything more than the slightest serious desire to buck majority white-denialist sentiment by telling the real story about anti-Black racism’s deep entrenchment and pervasive hold in the United States. He was widely praised in the media for saying in Dallas that his mere “words” have not been able to heal racial divisions in the country. But no respectable mainstream commentator is going to point out that Obama’s words (not to mention his deeds) have never cut more than slightly skin deep into the living historical beast that is American racial oppression.
The deeper truth is that Obama has always been ready to sacrifice domestic U.S. racial and other forms of social justice on the altar of what was always his favorite policy area, the one where U.S. presidents have the greatest field of autonomous action: Empire. He can perhaps say a bit more about race as a lame duck president than he could when he first smelled his shot at national and world power fourteen years ago. Still, he’s not about to screw things up with White America for the Clintons, who helped re-elect him in 2012.
Meanwhile, Hillary “Queen of Chaos” Clinton is practically dying to up the imperial ante. She can’t wait to take Washington’s tilts against Russia and China to new levels of lethal provocation. She, too, is all about Empire, U.S, president’s leading and favorite zone of agency. And she, too, must walk the nation’s highly racialized identity politics tightrope on the path to the pinnacles of America’s destructive global power.