From Daley Plaza to Syria: Obama’s Forgotten, Fading Imperial Promise

First published on ZNet on September 27, 2013. Some liberals and progressives who opposed Barack Obama’s attempted attack on Syria seemed taken aback and surprised at the president’s readiness to make brazenly illegal, unilateral war on another sovereign nation. I’m glad they helped block the bombing of Syria, but I find surprise at Obama’s imperial militarism distressing. That militarism has been on rich display from the beginning of his presidency, generating countless victims from Somalia and Yemen to Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan among other locations.

 The Invasion of Iraq as a Mistake, Not a Crime

But then, Obama’s imperial militarism was evident well before he took up residence in the White House. Obama was never anything remotely like the “antiwar” politician many liberal and progressive Democrats fantasized about during the long national Cheney-Bush 43 nightmare. Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s October 2002 speech against George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq in Chicago’s Daley Plaza – an oration that was subsequently lodged into the screen doors of Iowa City progressives on the eve of the 2008 Iowa Democratic Party presidential Caucus – is a case in point. It was much less anti-war than many imagined. “I am not opposed to all wars,” Obama said early in his speech, “I’m opposed to dumb wars.”[1]

Calling Bush’s imminent war “dumb” but not criminal or immoral, Obama deleted the petro-imperial ambitions behind the Iraq invasion being planned in Washington. He said nothing about racist nature of the Bush administration’s determination to preposterously link Iraq to the jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001 and to al Qaeda. Contrary to his presidential campaign’s later effort to brand him as a friend of the antiwar movement, his 2002 speech spoke against the planned invasion in much the same terms as George Bush Senior’s former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and much of the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. It argued that invading Iraq would be a foreign policy mistake – something that would not work for U.S. global power. It did not mention that the war and occupation being worked up by the White House and Pentagon would be a brazenly illegal and imperial transgression certain to kill many innocent Iraqis.  The reasons Obama gave not to invade Iraq – economic cost, uncertain outcomes, risks of regional destabilization, etc. (but not immorality, criminality, and the likelihood that many Iraqis would die) – were widely voiced concerns on the part of top conservative imperial thinkers.

 “He Had Bigger Plans” 

Even with these qualifications in place, Obama began “muting” his “antiwar” voice well before election to the U.S. Senate. In 2003, the year Iraq was invaded, Obama removed his Daley Plaza speech from his Web site. And while Obama may have spoken at a relatively small and elite antiwar rally in the fall of 2002 (I personally witnessed heads of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation sitting in folding chairs and sipping wine during Obama’s Daley Plaza speech), he was nowhere to be found during the great mass anti Iraq War marches (in which I participated) that took place in downtown Chicago on the nights of March 19 and March 20, 2003. According to Carl Davidson, a former leading anti-Vietnam War activist who helped organize the Daley Plaza speech, Obama began stepping back from his “antiwar” positions after the actual invasion of Iraq: “He turned…now we had to set aside whether it was right or wrong to invade, now we had to find the ‘smart’ path to victory, not Bush’s ‘dumb’ path….He wasn’t listening to us much anymore, but to folks much higher up in the DLC orbit. He had bigger plans.”[2]

“Never Go to War without Enough Troops to Win” 

Consistent with those “bigger plans,” Obama’s instantly heralded 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address – the speech that launched him into national and global celebrity – discussed the terrible costs of the illegal Iraq occupation purely in terms of “the more than nine hundred [U.S] men and women – sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors – who won’t be returning to their hometowns.”[3] In the part of “The Speech” that came closest to directly criticizing the Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administrated had “fudge[d] the numbers” and “shad[ed] the truth” about why “our young men and women” were “sent into harm’s way.” He added that the U.S. must “care for [soldiers’] families while they’re gone, tend to the soldiers upon their return, and never go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.”[4]

What, Leftists and others were left to wonder, about the considerably larger quantity (well into the tens of thousands) of Iraqis who had been killed and maimed and who lost their homes and incomes and more as a result of the U.S. invasion by the summer of 2004? What about the massive harm U.S. forces were ordered to inflict on Iraqis, considerably greater than the damage they experienced?

It was hardly a “war,” moreover, when the most powerful military state in history attacked and occupied a weak nation it had already devastated over decades of military assault and deadly “economic sanctions.” At the same time, “securing the peace” was a morally impoverished and nationally arrogant for Obama to describe the real White House objective in Iraq by the summer of 2004 – to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the outraged Iraqi populace that understandably resented a brazenly imperial invasion it saw (with good reason) as driven by the United States’ desire to deepen its control of Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil.[5]

“Shade the truth” didn’t come close to doing justice to the high-state deception – the savage, sinister, and sophisticated deception – that that the Bush administration used to cover its imperial ambitions in Iraq.[6]

Obama’s comment about never “going to war” without the resources to “win” and keep global “respect” evaded the question of the invasion’s unjust nature. What, after all, was the leading problem with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union? Was it that he we went in without the capacity to “win” and thereby lost global esteem or that he launched a monumentally criminal, racist and mass-murderous war of imperial aggression that killed millions of Russians, Germans and other Eastern and Central Europeans?

Obama’s 2004 Keynote Address was of course consistent with the John Forbes “Reporting for Duty” Kerry presidential campaign, which silenced antiwar voices on the Democratic convention floor and ran on the notion that its standard-bearer would be a more competent and effective administrator of the Iraq occupation than George W. Bush. Kerry was promising to conduct the criminal policy in a more efficient way.[7]


“The Hope of Slaves”

Obama’s Keynote oration hit an especially noxious note when he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of “hope:”


“I’m not talking about blind optimism here…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 [John Edwards] 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.”[8]

The “young naval lieutenant line” was a reference to the Democratic presidential candidate Kerry’s participation in a previous imperialist adventure, one that took millions of Vietnamese lives.

It took no small chutzpah for Obama to lump African-American slaves’ struggles and spirituality with the imperial and racist U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. Perhaps “God” (the officially highly religious Obama’s Keynote Address made repeated references to “God” and “the Creator”) 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 America’s territory to “patrol” – the same arrogant, nationalist and racist sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own slaves, steal land from Mexico and Native Americans and which allowed the George W. Bush administration to seize Iraq.

“The Difference is Who’s In a Position to Execute?” 

Obama’s most revealing Iraq war comments during the 2004 Democratic Party convention did not occur during his famous address. One day before he gave his historic speech, Obama told the New York Times that he did not know how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution had he been serving in the United States Senate at the time of the vote. “In a recent interview,” the Times reported, Obama “declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.’ But, I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘What would I have done? I don’t know.’ What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made'”[9]

Obama said something just as telling during the convention to Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Zeleny and David Mendell. “There’s not that much difference between my position [on Iraq] and George Bush’s position at this stage,” he told the journalists “The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute” (emphasis added).  Zeleny and Mendell added that Obama “now believes U.S. forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation – a position not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration.”[10]

“They Have Seen Their Sons and Daughters Killed in the Streets of Fallujah”

Two years and four months later, poised to announce his bid for the presidency, Obama gave a coldly imperial speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. At one terrible and telling point in that fall 2006 address, he said the following in support of his claim that U.S. citizens support “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah [emphasis added].”[11]

That was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for colossal U.S. war atrocity. American crimes there included the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city – by the U.S. military in April and November of 2004. The town was designated for destruction as an example of the awesome state terror promised to those who dared to resist U.S. power. Thanks to the U.S. deployment of chemical weapons and “depleted” radioactive ordnance there, Fallujah has been plagued ever since by epidemics of leukemia, cancer, and birth defects. Not surprisingly, Fallujah became a powerful and instant symbol of American imperialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It was a deeply provocative and insulting place for Obama to have chosen to highlight American sacrifice and “resolve” in the imperialist occupation of Iraq.[12]


“To Hold Together the Country”

Another disturbing moment in Obama’s CCGA speech came in its twenty-fourth paragraph, where he said that a “timetable” for “phased withdrawal” of U.S. troops would “send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the U.S. is not going to hold together the country indefinitely [emphasis added] – that it will it be up to them to form a viable government that can effectively run and secure Iraq.”

This was a remarkable statement from an ostensibly “antiwar” Senator from a military superpower that had just spent nearly four years deliberately tearing apart the society and public capacities of what was an already desperately poor and devastated (thanks in preponderant measure to U.S. policy actions since at least the First Persian Gulf War) nation.[13]

In a similar, guilt-dissociating vein, the criminal U.S. assault was missing from Obama’s claim to the CCGA that “Iraq is descending into chaos based on ethnic divisions that were around long before American troops arrived.” Beyond its belated dating of Iraq’s predictable (and predicted) collapse into civil war, this formulation neglected the openly imperial U.S. assault’s role in smashing the public institutions that had restricted internal Iraq “chaos.” It naturally deleted the more specific role of the invaders in actively setting Iraqis against each other along ethnic lines.[14]

Also problematic from an antiwar perspective was Obama’s praise of U.S. occupation soldiers for “performing their duty with bravery, with brilliance, and without question” (emphasis added). As an antiwar activist at the time, I had a difficult time determining which aspect of this comment was more disturbing: Obama’s blindness (intentional or not) to the important and welcome fact that many troops did in fact question the occupation or his upholding of the unquestioning execution of criminal military orders as a good thing.[15]


“Americans May Be Tempted to Turn Inward”

“After thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent,” Obama told the CCGA, “many Americans may be tempted to turn inward and cede our leadership in world affairs. But this,” the senator stated, “is a mistake we must not make. America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, and the world cannot meet them without

America.”[16] It was the not the last time Obama would weigh in on the United States supposed “exceptional” right and duty to intervene in other nation’s affairs and on the dangers to that duty by ordinary Americans’ supposedly “isolationist” reluctance to support imperial adventures.


“The Last, Best Hope on Earth” 

Any doubt that Obama’s supposed “antiwar” position on Iraq was situated within and reflects his broader support for U.S. global imperialism and militarism should have been silenced by minimally careful attention to a second major foreign policy speech he gave to the CCGA on April 23rd, 2007. Titled “The American Moment,” it was a militantly nationalistic and audaciously U.S,-world-supremacist oration It proudly embraced U.S. planetary hegemony and the need not to back down (in the wake of the Iraq “mistake”) from America’s purported right to aggressively and (where “necessary”) unilaterally use the “world’s greatest military” to enforce American global dominance.

Proclaiming his nationally narcissistic belief that “the magical place called America” was still “the last, best hope on Earth,” Obama “reject[ed] the notion that the American moment had passed.” He argued that “the new century” could be “another one …where we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the common good.” The “world,” Obama said, “cannot meet this century…without America.”[17] This conclusion reflected Obama’s openly acknowledged “American exceptionalism” – his brazenly hubristic belief that the United States was a distinctively noble and excellent nation whose leaders were uniquely authorized to manage the world’s affairs.[18]


“No President Should Hesitate to Use Force” 

Obama’s second CCGA lecture included an instructive statement of what he saw as the leading problem with Bush II’s Iraq policy. “The mistakes of the past six years,” Obama said, “have made our current task” – leading the world against evil and spreading good – “more difficult. World opinion has turned against us. And after all the [American] lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, many [Americans] find it tempting to turn inward and cede our claim of leadership in world affairs. I insist, however, that such an abandonment of our leadership is a mistake we must not make.”

By Obama’s account, the main difficulty with Bush’s invasion wasn’t that it was a brazenly criminal operation that had killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.[19] It wasn’t the technically illegal and highly deceptive basis[20] on which the invasion was sold to the U.S populace. The main problem for Obama, rather, was that the occupation had set back America’s capacity to “lead” – most of the world’s morally and politically cognizant populace would say “rule” – by turning “the world beyond our borders” off to the United States’ unmatched moral excellence and by challenging America citizens’ willingness to support the costly enforcement of U.S. global dominance.

Obama was especially concerned with the damage the Iraq invasion had done to “the best hope on earth’s” readiness to project military force across the planet. “Two thirds of the Army,” Obama complained, “is now rated as ‘not ready’ for combat. 88% of the National Guard is not ready to deploy overseas.” Cheney and Bush’s strategic imperial blunder had not expressed but rather undermined the United States’ capacity to exercise global military dominance. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came in for special criticism from Obama for saying that “‘you go to war with the Army you have, not with the one you want.’ I say,” Obama proclaimed, “that if the need arises the Army we have will be the Army we need.” [21]

The most remarkable and chilling (from an antiwar and/or anti-imperial peace perspective) line in Obama’s April 23rd 2007 speech came 37 paragraphs into his oration. Lest any of his elite listeners wondered if a President Obama’s concept of “when the need arises” might include the opportunity to launch a preemptive and unilateral assault on a foreign state, U.S. Senator Obama made it clear that he wasn’t all that far from Cheney and Bush on such questions. “No president,” Obama said, “should ever hesitate to use force – unilaterally, if necessary – to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened. But when we use force in situations other than self defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others.” The second sentence in this quotation clearly assumed that the U.S. possesses the right to unilaterally assault other nations that do not pose a threat to “our vital interests.”

The speech ended with words that ought to have given pause to peace and justice progressives who combined peace symbols and Obama posters on their posters and lawns. “The American moment has not passed,” Obama concluded. “The American moment is now. And like generations before us, we will seize the moment and begin the world anew.”


“This is Left-Liberal Foreign Policy?”

Obama’s second CCGA speech received strong approval from an interesting source – the arch-militarist neoconservative Washington Post columnist and John McCain foreign policy advisor Robert Kagan. Kagan was a leading early proponent of the Iraq invasion. In a Post column titled “Obama the Interventionist,” Kagan gave Obama an enthusiastic thumbs up for “putting an end to the idea that the alleged over-exuberant idealism and America-centric hubris of the past six years is about to give way to a new realism, a more modest view of American interests, capabilities, and responsibilities.” Kagan praised Obama for embracing Cold War language describing the U.S. as the “leader of the free world” and for advancing an aggressively “interventionist” foreign policy requiring a significant increase in “defense” spending. “When he said, ‘We’ve heard much over the last six years about how America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom,’” Kagan gushed, “you probably expected him to distance himself from this allegedly discredited idealism. Instead, he said, ‘I agree.’ His critique is not that we’ve meddled too much but that we haven’t meddled enough.” Further high praise from Kagan went as follows: “Obama talks about ‘rogue nations,’ ‘hostile dictators,’ ‘muscular alliances’ and maintaining ‘a strong nuclear deterrent.’ He talks about how we need to ‘seize’ the ‘American moment.’ We must ‘begin the world anew.’ This is realism? This is left-liberal foreign policy? Ask Noam Chomsky next time you see him.”[22]

 “Beyond Self Defense” 

Obama continued to prove his fierce fealty to the bipartisan imperial consensus in a summer 2007 article in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs. Containing numerous dubious historical reflections that put a shiny coat of whitewash on various past U.S. crimes abroad, this essay then moved into current events in ways that should have strongly fed suspicions that an Obama presidency could be expected to perpetuate ongoing imperial transgressions and commit new ones. Declaring that “we can be [Kennedy’s] America again,” he accused the Bush administration of dropping the ball of empire. “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.”[23] 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 are a code phrase for other nations’ oil, located primarily in the Middle East.[24]

“A strong military,” Obama wrote, “is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace.” We must “revitalize our military” to foster “peace,” echoing Orwell, partly by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines.

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 wrote, “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 more militarist segments of the power elite that he would not be hamstrung by international law and civilized norms when “our vital interests” are “at stake,” Obama promised 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.” [25]

 The Specter of “Isolationism”

Along with his opposition to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq during his first two years in the U.S, Senate, all of this placed Obama well to the imperial right of majority U.S. public opinion on foreign policy. In October 2004, as Obama was on the verge of defeating the hapless Alan Keyes in the race for the open Illinois seat in the upper Congressional body, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations released an important survey showing that:

*  59 percent Americans thought the US should remove its military presence from the Middle East if that’s what the majority of people there wanted.

* 72 percent of Americans thought the US should remove its military presence from Iraq if that’s what the majority of people there wanted.

* 58 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should not have long-term military bases in Iraq.

* Just 20 percent of Americans thought it was the United States’ responsibility to function as the world’s policeman.[26]

Eleven months later, while the “Obama brand” was making friends in the U.S. Senate and muting his supposed “antiwar” sentiments, a Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 60 percent of Americans now believed the U.S. “was wrong to invade Iraq.” According to the Post, “a clear majority – 55 percent – now says the administration deliberately misled the country in making its case for war.” A September 2005 CBS-New York Times poll showed that the U.S. public’s support for an immediate withdrawal stood at 52 percent.[27]

These and other surveys indicating mass U.S. opposition to the occupation went unmentioned in the voluminous speeches and writings of Obama during and since his first two years in the U.S. Senate. But this is not to say that U.S. Senator and presidential candidate made no reference to American public opinion on foreign policy, however. In both his 2006 CCGA speech and in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (a paean among other things to the supposed benevolent and exceptional nobility of U.S. society and foreign policy past and present), Obama cited opinion data meant to illustrate what he considered to be the real danger in the wake of the Iraq fiasco: that Americans were leaning dangerously towards “isolationism” and thus turning their backs on the noble superpower’s global “responsibilities.”

In reality, no serious public opinion demonstrated that Americans were veering towards “isolationism.” They were maintaining their longstanding rejection of both aggressive unilateral U.S. imperialism and “isolationism” and of supporting an enlightened and democratic internationalism that honors international law and shows respect for the wishes of others.[28] With their repudiation of the Iraq occupation, they rejected the misuse of American power in violation of established global rules and civilized norms – rules and norms that Obama reserved the right to violate and which are violated by an illegal invasion Obama promises to continue.
Candidate Obama on “The Worst Casualty of [the Vietnam] War”

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama’s audacious American-exceptionalist imperialism reached its nauseating peak on pages 287 and 288 of The Audacity of Hope. There he held forth as follows on the Vietnam War – a savage and racist U.S. assault that killed at least 2 million Indochinese (the proportional American equivalent would have run into the tens of millions):

“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 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 left it to those he considered hopelessly alienated “carpers” of the “moral absolutist left” to point out that Vietnam wasn’t America’s to “lose” in the first place and that the U.S assault on Indochina was consistent with the wider U.S. foreign policy aim of subordinating Third World development to the perceived needs of world capitalist order.

Regarding the supposed tragedy of the frayed “bond of trust between the American people and their government,” it was left to that “unrealistic” left to note that the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” is a healthy and democratic thing. It’s good, from a democratic perspective, for the American people subject “their” foreign policy establishment to skeptical scrutiny and to turn against imperial wars.

Obama could not acknowledge that the previous supposed “bond of trust” (whose dissolution he mourned) between the American people and “their” government was based largely on Establishment lies calculated to “scare the Hell out of the” citizenry with exaggerated Soviet and international “Communist” threats.

Obama left it to “unreasonable” “zealots” of the “radical fringe” to note that “biggest casualty” of the war on Vietnam 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 astonishing damage done to Indochinese villages, cities, infrastructure, ecology, agriculture – not to mention the millions killed in more direct fashion. The number of South Vietnamese civilians murdered just by the CIA’s Operation Phoenix (assassination) program was equivalent to 45 percent of the U.S. body count in Vietnam.

With perhaps a million Iraqis sent to premature deaths by America’s invasion by the time Obama published The Audacity of Hope, the people of Iraq could be forgiven if they didn’t share Obama’s sense that it was a good thing for the American armed forces to “recover” after Vietnam.

 “Who Better to Restore Faith in the Imperial Project?”

It was all very consistent with the aggressively globalist foreign policy team Obama assembled in 2007. His top foreign relations included such thoroughly mainstream and eminently respectable Cold War and “war on terror” strategists as former White House National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, and former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke. His team included Harvard professor Samantha Power, a well-known advocated of American “humanitarian” intervention abroad and a supporter of the U.S. assault on Serbia. Other members were Dennis Ross, a strong defender of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and retired General Merrill McPeak, a supporter of Indonesia’s practically genocidal occupation of East Timor.[29]

A black Seattle-based Left poet and activist named Michael Hureax got it tight in February of 2008. The Obama candidacy, he noted, was about “restor[ing] faith in the imperial project” by putting an eloquent black leader at its nominal head, to function as a “JFK in sepia.” As Hureaux observed in the comments section attached to a haunting Dissident Voice essay by Juan Santos, titled “Barack Obama and the End of Racism:”

“I’m watching all kinds of people who I’d previously thought had some critical thinking skills cave under this Obamania business. I had a hunch this was coming when I watched his speech at the convention four years ago, my wife and I both sat and took it in and looked at each other and said, almost word for word, ‘He’s good, he’s very good.’ The rakish JFK style jabs, the clearly studied rhetorical grace. Whatbetter gift to the empire than JFK in sepia? All last year, numerous discussions with people from the old new left who told us, ‘He’ll never get a shot at it because of racist US etc.,’ to which we maintained, ‘But what better figure to have out there than one to restore faith in the imperial project, but someone with a black face? They managed to live with Powell and Rice, why not Obama?’”[30]


“Obama Aligns Foreign Policy With GOP”

Leading up the Pennsylvania primary of April 22, 2008, Obama left little doubt that he operated within the doctrinal parameters of the bipartisan imperial consensus. Speaking at a town hall event in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, he 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 and necessary Persian Gulf War. The Associated Press article reporting this comment was aptly titled “Obama Aligns Foreign Policy With GOP” [31] – a rebuke to Left-liberal writers who argued that the centrist Obama stood to the progressive side of Hillary Clinton at least on foreign policy.[32]

“Calibrating Expectations”

Reading this last article, I flashed back to an appearance that Obama’s foreign policy adviser Samantha Power (currently Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations) made on the “Charlie Rose Show” in late February of 2008. Noting that President Bush had recently been swamped by cries of “O-ba-ma” during a recent state visit to Africa, interviewer Rose asked Power if she was concerned about the “sky-high expectations” much of the world seemed to have for an Obama presidency. There is “a danger” in this, Rose worried.

“Yes,” Power said, noting that Obama was very concerned about unrealistic hopes and adding that “that’s why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.” Behind this disturbing application of openly elitist, manipulative, and technocratic language to the “management” of domestic and global opinion and hopes lay an obvious if unstated admission: Obama was as attached to the U.S. imperial project as Bush and this would disappoint hopeful masses at home and abroad. The peoples’ naïve faith in change needs to be carefully and downwardly “calibrated.” Before this exchange, Power had just explained to Rose that an Obama presidency would not in fact remove all U.S. troops from Iraq all that quickly.[33]

A Fading Gift to Empire

Five years and seven months later, Ms. Power, Obama, the president’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice (another leading “cruise missile liberal” in the Madeline Albright mode) were foiled in their effort to launch a murderous missile and bomb assault on Syria under the standard banners of humanitarian and democratic intent. They were blocked in no small part by public opposition within the U.S. Like the rest of the world, the American public had no stomach for yet another U.S. imperial adventure to be launched in the name of noble ideals and stopping an evil dictator’s “weapons of mass destruction.”

Obama certainly blames the Vietnam and Iraq “mistakes” (epic imperial crimes for most of the cognizant world) for this resurgent so-called “isolationism.” He might want to look at the significant extent to which his own militarism in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa has combined with his unpopular surveillance and security state policies (a significant number of which have been exposed by the heroic whistleblower Edward Snowden and the civil libertarian journalist Glenn Greenwald) to exacerbate the “Vietnam” and “Iraq” “syndromes.”

At home now as well as abroad, the Obama re-branding project has lost much of its “expectation-calibrating” luster. This time around and for the first time, Emperor Obama met significant opposition from the progressive “antiwar community” that marched against Cheney-Bush’s Iraq crime. Perhaps “Brand Obama” has passed its imperial shelf-life date. According to the Washington Post:

“The debate over whether to intervene militarily in Syria is the final break in a long-splintering relationship between President Obama and the antiwar movement. Antiwar activists played an important role in the president’s 2008 campaign, helping Obama defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Republican nominee John McCain in the general election….But five years later, a broad coalition of liberal groups that make up the antiwar movement is more likely to oppose the president on foreign policy. And on Syria, the groups successfully pressured Democrats on Capitol Hill to defy Obama, weakening him in the process….”

“Antiwar activists have run television and print ads, held rallies, organized petitions and blanketed congressional switchboards — all with messages of opposition to the president. ‘This moment around Syria is a high-water mark for progressives speaking out on military policy or foreign policy under Obama,’ said Anna Galland, the executive director of ‘We strongly and publicly broke with the president on foreign policy for the first time.’…The Syria experience suggests that Obama would face not only skepticism from Republicans, who have attacked him for his handling of the situation, but also strong opposition from the left. It comes as part of a growing list of grievances among liberals about Obama’s national security policy…”

“Initially, the left complained that Obama was too slow to withdraw troops from Iraq and wrong to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan. They were frustrated by his failure to persuade Congress to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And more recently, they have protested his expansive use of drone warfare and his strong support for surveillance programs. ‘He does things that would be unthinkable from a antiwar perspective,’ said Tom Hayden, a longtime activist who created an organization to marshal liberals in support of Obama in 2008. ‘I think a lot of people thought he would do a better job for us.’ …Progressive groups rapidly mobilized opposition to Obama’s Syria plans with calls, e-mails and demonstrations. said it gathered 210,000 votes and petition signatures, generated 46,000 calls to Capitol Hill and staged 220 vigils across the nation with 7,000 attendees. Nearly 20,000 members of the left-leaning group CREDO Mobile have reported on their calls to Congress…VoteVets played a key role in helping persuade war veterans such as Reps. Tulsi Gabbard. (Hawaii)Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Tim Walz (Minn.) to oppose a strike. The group was also instrumental in swaying other moderate Democrats.” [34]

 In his address to the United Nations (UN) earlier this week, the drone-warrior-in-chief Barack Obama was reduced to complaining about Americans’ supposed desire to shirk the duty of U.S. world leadership. “Indeed, as recent debates within the United States over Syria clearly shows,” Obama whined, “the danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war- rightly concerned about issues home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim – may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”[35]

That’s quite an interesting comment to make to officials from across a world whose citizens have long and with good reason identified the United States and its vast military empire (which accounts for half the world’s war spending and maintains more than 1000 military bases across more than 100 “sovereign” nations) as the planet’s leading threat to global peace and security. It’s even more interesting (in a dark Orwellian way) that Obama pretended to bemoan the absence of any other single nation ready to fill the “vacuum” of global “leadership” at an agency dedicated at least formally and in its founding charter to the notion that the world might resolve its conflicts on a multilateral, cross national and democratic basis!

Still, Obama made sure in his UN speech to uphold America’s right to violate other nations’ sovereignty by engaging in “direct action” (unilateral military strikes) to “defend the United States,” to “ensure the free flow of energy [oil and wealth – P.S.] from the region [the Middle East] to the [rich nation’s and financial elites of the – P.S.] world,” and to stop “the development of weapons of mass destruction.” (Never mind that no nation has developed and possesses more WMD in the world than the U.S. and that no nation in “the region” has developed and possesses more WMD than “our ally Israel”).

“I believe,” Obama droned on, “America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.”

The judgment is shared by relatively few among the “all,” the human race, the majority of whose politically cognizant populace knows all too well about America’s long and terrible record of murderous imperial criminality – a record that is officially invisible in the U.S. and across much of the “civilized” West.

The recent liberal-left antiwar revival inside the U.S. is better late than never, Let it last and expand to challenge the broad panoply of Obama’s “dirty wars” and the broader imperial project, including (for his example) his ingoing and terrible drone war. Still, its’ a shame folks in leading “progressive” circles didn’t look more seriously into the militantly imperial content of Obama’s speeches and publications (and Senate votes) during and before his initial presidential campaign. Maybe they could have stopped the Libya “mistake” (crime) and much more in the way of the “liberal” imperialism that is on such ugly display in the Age of Obama.

Let us hope that the American “left” will show a new determination to never be fooled again by the mendacious peace-posturing of stealth imperialist candidates whose real and militaristic agendas can generally be culled by doing a little basic research on the speeches and writings they craft with elite foreign policy audiences in mind – this even as they employ “emotionally potent oversimplifications” and the latest marketing and public relations techniques and devices to “manufacture consent” and “calibrate expectations” among the “bewildered herd” and “rabble” that happen to comprise the corporate-managed citizenry under the purportedly wise and benevolent direction of media and political coordinators linked to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

Paul Street is the author of many books, His next is They Rule: The 1% v.Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).



1. Barack Obama, “Against Going to War With Iraq,” speech delivered in Chicago, Illinois, October 2, 2002, read online in March 2008 at

2. Davidson was quoted in Adam Turl, “Is Obama Different?” Socialist Worker Online (February 2, 2007). Davidson’s comment should not be taken to mean that Obama ever questioned whether the Iraq invasion was morally and/or legally “wrong.” Obama never questioned the invasion public with regard to that sort of definition of “wrong.”

3. Barack Obama, “Time to Reclaim America’s Promise” (Boston, MA. July 27, 2004), accessed online in July 2004 at; read today at, paragraph 26.

4. Obama, “Time to Reclaim,” paragraph 27.

5. Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New York: New Press, 2006), pp. 4-7; Paul Street, “Largely About Oil: Reflections on Empire, Petroleum, Democracy, and the Occupation of Iraq,” Z Magazine (Featured Article), 20th Anniversary Issue (January 2008): 38-42.

6. Paul Street, “Bedtime Stories for the Bewildered Herd: Iraq War Fairy Tales in the Age of Never Mind Media,”Z Magazine (January 2007): 33-37.

7. Paul Street, “Kerry is Coke, Bush is Crack,” ZNet Magazine (March 24, 2004).

8. Obama, “Time to Reclaim,” paragraphs 38 and 39.

9. New York Times, 26 July, 2004.

10. Chicago Tribune, 24 July, 2004.

11. Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Speech to Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Illinois (November 20, 2006), accessed online in July 2007 at _in_iraq/index.html.

12. Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (New York: Verso, 2005, p. xii); Arnove, Iraq, pp. 27-28; Paul Street, “Vilsacking Iraq,” ZNet (December 22, 2006).

13. Nir Rosen, “The Death of Iraq,” Current History (December 2007); Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), 15, 27, 28, 38, 46, 56, 105-107, 118-122, 133-135, 143; William Blum,Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2005), 206-07. There were mass civilian casualties and widespread targeting of civilians and surrendered soldiers during the first open U.S military war on Iraq (the “Persian Gulf War” of 1991) – an assault whose expert management by George HW Bush Obama effusively praised in April of 2008. See Devlin Barrett, “Obama Aligns Foreign Policy With GOP,” Associated Press, 29 March, 2008

14. Obama, “A Way Forward;” A.K. Gupta, “Oil, Neoliberalism and Sectarianism in Iraq,” Z Magazine (April 2007).

15. Obama, “A Way Forward;” Robert Holdierene, “Down on the War,” Military Times (December 29, 2006),; Paul Street, “‘Without Question?’ On Growing Military Opposition to the Cheney-Bush Occupation of Iraq,” Dissident Voice (January 11, 2007)

16. Obama, “A Way Forward;” Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006), 303-304.

17. Barack Obama, “The American Moment: Remarks to Chicago Council on Global Affairs” (April 23, 2007), read at

18. Barack Obama, “The American Moment: Remarks to Chicago Council on Global Affairs” (April 23, 2007), accessed online in May 2007 at; Christopher Preble, “Barack Obama’s American Exceptionalism,” The Globalist (May 25, 2007), read at; “Remarks of U.S. Senator Barack Obama at the Knox College Commencement” (June 4, 2005).

19. David Brown, “Iraq ‘Excess’ Death Toll Has Reached 655,000,” Washington Post, October 11, 2006), p. A12.

20. Elizabeth de la Vega, The United States v. George W. Bush et al. (New York: Seven Stories, 2006).

21. Obama, “The American Moment.”

22. Robert Kagan, “Obama the Interventionist,” Washington Post, 29 April, 2007, p. B7

23. Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007).

24. Michael Klare, Blood and Oil (New York: Metropolitan, 2004), 3-6, 45-47, 50, 150; Michael Klare, “Beyond the Age of Petroleum,” The Nation (November 12, 2007),; Michael Schwartz, “Why Did We Invade Iraq Anyway?,” Truthout (October 30, 2007),,

25. Obama, “Renewing American Leadership.”

26. Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), Global Views (October 2004), accessed October 30, 2004 atwww.ccfr/globalviews2004/sub/usa.htm

27. Cited and quoted in Arnove, Iraq, 65-66.

28. CCFR, Global Views; Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 228-229.

29. Stephen Zunes, “Behind Obama and Clinton,” Foreign Policy in Focus (February 4, 2008).

30. Juan Santos, Dissident Voice, February 13, 2008.

31. Barrett, “Obama Aligns Foreign Policy With GOP.”

32. See, for example, Christopher Hayes, “The Choice,” The Nation (January 31, 2008) and, perhaps, Stephen Zunes, “The Foreign Policy Agenda of the Democratic Front-Runners: Comparisons on some Key Issues,” Common Dreams(January 25, 2008).

33.Charlie Rose Show, “P”BS, February 21, 2008. See Thanks to David Peterson for bringing this source to my attention.

34. Zachary Goldfarb and Juliet Ellperin, “Syria Situation Further Strains Obama’s Relationship With the Antiwar Movement,” Washington Post, September 13, 2013,


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By | 2013-10-03T11:08:36+00:00 October 3rd, 2013|Articles|