The Obama Doctrine and the Seduction of the American Public
By Dennis Loo (1/10/14)
A number of my students have asked me why Obama is not closing GTMO, given his statements that he wants to, given the fact that it is within his power as POTUS to do so, and given the extremely negative consequences keeping it open have for the U.S.’s reputation in the world. The reasons for his ongoing failure to close it I suspect include at least two elements. First, Obama’s record in public political life is that he rarely steps outside what is considered the political mainstream even while he protests that he is on the side of the angels in his desires. Obama’s tendency is to appease and “reach across the aisle” to reactionaries (aka the GOP) while trying to mislead his social base as to what he’s doing and why. Obama, in other words, is a political coward whose political career has been fueled by his truly exceptional ability at carrying out the system’s needs while disarming the public about what he is actually doing.
Second, and more importantly, Obama is the public face and the actual head of the U.S. imperialist empire. That empire operates under the working logic that in order to accomplish its aims it must show all potential critics and rivals that it will stop at nothing to suppress any challenges to it, including the savage use of torture to intimidate and drones overhead striking down both actual rivals and even innocents who are in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e., living and going about their lives in the places where they live). For state terror to work it must operate in the same manner that anti-state terror does: you are supposed to be afraid that you could be the next arbitrarily and capriciously chosen victim of terrorism so that you will abide by what the terrorists – anti-state and state terrorists alike – want. -- “Obama: Appearances v. Reality,” May 25, 2013
There is a particular way that Obama operates that needs to be understood. His entire political persona rests upon presenting himself as being on the side of the people while behind the scenes delivering to those who really run things the policies and practices that they rely upon and serving the American empire’s interests. This is how Obama became a US Senator and how he became the first black US president – by opportunistically taking advantage of his tremendous facility at simulating a persona that many others could read into what is not actually there.
While he has continued and expanded upon Bush’s violations of core civil liberties and undermining of the rule of law, he has throughout claimed to be doing precisely the opposite of these things. He has made a fetish of being “transparent,” committed to the “rule of law,” a proponent and professor of the Constitution and habeas corpus, horrified by torture, a defender of whistleblowers, and sensitive and empathetic about those who are disenfranchised. He has, in fact, said the exact opposite of what he’s doing because he knows that what he is actually doing would be horrifying to those who look to him for leadership.
Former Bush Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel from 2003–2004, Jack Goldsmith frankly put it this way shortly after Obama’s re-election:
One important consequence of President Obama’s re-election will be the further entrenchment, and legitimation, of the basic counterterrorism policies that Obama continued, with tweaks, from the late Bush administration. We will have four more years of a Democratic president presiding over military detention without trial, military commission trials (at least for the 9/11 conspirators, if not for more), broad warrantless surveillance, drone strikes around the globe, and covert war more generally. These policies will of course be scrutinized by the many watchers of the presidency. But they will receive less pushback than they would have received under a republican president. Not only does the public generally trust the former constitutional law professor and civil liberties champion more than a republican president to carry out these policies (this is the Nixon going to China phenomenon). But in addition, many on the left (in Congress and the NGO community, and perhaps the press) who might otherwise be uncomfortable with these policies will give President Obama a freer hand than they would a republican president. The paradoxical bottom line: aggressive counterterrorism policies will, as a general matter, become more entrenched as a result of Obama’s election, compared to a Romney presidency.
Obama, in other words, isn’t just another lying politician but one who is expressly lying about a very particular trajectory. Obama deserves to go down in history as far more damaging than Bush and Cheney because he has succeeded in getting people who would have otherwise not done so to accept the Bush Doctrine. In fact, it should now really be named the Obama Doctrine because he has gone beyond Bush: unchecked executive powers, the use of not just indefinite but preventive detention (i.e., holding someone on the basis of what they might do rather than what they have done), the major expansion of drone assassinations (which Bush adopted, prompted by candidate Obama’s suggestion, for Pakistan only) to kill thousands in numerous countries, including for the first time, American citizens, the expansion of black ops assassination teams (as chronicled by Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield, and which is a particular facet of the Obama Doctrine), the explicit training of soldiers that First Amendment protest activities are a form of “low-level terrorism,” the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which turns frankly extraordinary powers over to transnational and multinational corporations, allowing them to override national and local laws, the persecution of whistleblowers and Occupy, deporting more immigrants than Bush did, and so on.
I’m not here, however, to talk mainly about Obama. What is more important than his personal career is how his particular opportunism suits 21st century American imperialism’s needs at this juncture. Bush and Cheney’s policies and their “banality of evil” alienated tens of millions. To rescue the system’s legitimacy enter Barack Hussein Obama, someone who could implicitly by his very appearance and explicitly through his eloquent speeches, rope people who were threatening to spin out of the control of the system into remaining within the orbit of the US Empire’s killing logic. Consider for a minute the difference between what someone like Hillary Clinton or John Kerry (let alone Mitt Romney or John McCain) can convince Americans to accept as appropriate and what Obama can do. Consider how convinced people have been by Kerry’s speeches and remarks about Syria’s Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. There is no one comparable to Obama’s persuasiveness in the ranks of the leading political parties at this time. We are seeing the very beginnings of those willing to at last break with their seduction by Obama, but far, far more must happen.
Nowhere is Obama’s high-wire juggling act more evident than in his speeches and policies towards Guantanamo. Here is an excerpt from his May 23, 2013 speech, the same day that World Can’t Wait ran its full-page NYT’s ad calling for Guantanamo’s immediate closure. I was principle author of that ad and was particularly astonished by the gumption that it takes for Obama to state these words:
Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?
With these words Obama distances himself from these acts that he is criticizing. Let’s look closer at this. I am going to reprint here the article that I wrote immediately after Obama’s May 23, 2013 speech in which I went into these matters in detail.
By Dennis Loo (5/23/13)
Update at the end
Today in his major address about his drone and detention policies, Obama said:
“Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
Last Thursday, May 16, 2013: "Asked at a Senate hearing today how long the war on terrorism will last, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, answered, 'At least 10 to 20 years.' . . .
A spokeswoman, Army Col. Anne Edgecomb, clarified that Sheehan meant the conflict is likely to last 10 to 20 more years from today - atop the 12 years that the conflict has already lasted. Welcome to America's Thirty Years War."
In other words, Obama in his speech today, May 23, 2013, was not speaking figuratively when he said, “Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people…” He meant this literally.
In response to Obama’s query of “Is that who we are?” It’s not WE. It’s YOU Mr. Obama.
YOU are the one who is force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike.
YOU are the one who is violating medical ethics and torturing prisoners through excruciatingly painful force feedings.
YOU are the one who closed the State Department office that was responsible for handling releasing prisoners.
YOU are the one who imposed a ban on returning any Yemenis – who make up 56 of the prisoners at GTMO - to Yemen.
YOU are the one who promised to close GTMO when you ran for office and YOU continue to promise to close it, but have put up roadblock after roadblock to doing exactly that.
In his speech today Obama also said “During the past decade, the vast majority of those detained by our military were captured on the battlefield.”
In fact, of those detained in GTMO over the course of the history of GTMO being used by the U.S. as a no man’s land for detainees, 5% were captured by U.S. troops on the battlefield. 86% were turned into Coalition forces for the bounties. These bounties given to Pakistani and Afghan villagers have totaled in the millions of dollars.
In his speech today, Obama once more attributed his failure to close GTMO to Congress, “Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO.”
Congress isn’t the problem. Obama is the Commander in Chief and could close it tomorrow if he wanted to.
In his speech today, Obama essentially reiterated what he declared in his May 9, 2009 speech in which he stated that he would engage in preventive detention (i.e., holding people based on what they might do, not what they have done), putting it this way today,
Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.
When he says that the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in court he means that the “evidence” was obtained through torture.
When he says, “once we commit to a process of closing GTMO” he means, once the fictional barriers that I claim that Congress has erected to prevent my shutting down GTMO are gone – which is never, since Congress isn’t what is standing in the way now - then I can finally fulfill my promise.
When he says that he is “confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law,” I want to say, how do you remain committed to the rule of law when you torture people and after you torture them, you decide that the people that you have tortured have to pay the price for your torturing them by remaining in detention under torturous conditions, until you decide how this “problem can be resolved?”
Is ten years enough? Because that’s how long and longer many of these detainees have been in GTMO uncharged and untried. Do you need another three years at which point your presidency will be ending?
In his speech today, Obama said, “This is the price of being the world’s most powerful nation…”
Here is the price of being someone who this “world’s most powerful nation” detains without charges for more than a decade, who is one of the over one million Iraqis1 or tens of thousands of American soldiers killed (7,000 official casualties and 18/day who are dying by suicide which means some 60,000 have died by their own hand since the wars upon Iraq and Afghanistan began),2 the 176 children killed in Pakistan alone by drones, the 3-4,000 killed to date by drones…
Here is the price for Americans who go along with these honeyed words concealing deadly deceit and murder of anyone anywhere who crosses the President of the United States: the loss of their souls. I don’t believe in souls in a religious sense, but I believe in what souls refers to: our sense of the difference between right and wrong.
Obama's speech demonstrates the exceptionally skillful way that this man can spin words. But his artful presentation cannot change the fact that we are now in day 106 of the hunger strike. His oh so skillful speech does not alter and will not alter the fact that he is still detaining these men who are so desperate that many of them have been on a hunger strike for over one hundred days. His artful deceptions don't alter the fact that he will continue to use Tuesdays at the White House to add names to his "kill list." People who are being tortured and people who are being maimed and killed by his policies will not stop being tortured, maimed and killed by those policies, no matter how he spins their presentation.
Sign and donate to our NYTimes statement. Spread the word. Spread the movement against these grave injustices. What kind of world do you want to live in? What side are you on? Does Obama speak for you? Will these crimes continue to be done in your name?
In a McClatchy newspaper article written yesterday after Obama's speech, "Obama speech suggests possible expansion in drone killings," analysts point out that, contrary to the overt message in his speech, articulated by, for example, the NYT's article before his speech that Obama was "limiting" drones, Obama's speech is actually signaling an expansion in drone use:
Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed “lethal actions” in apparent anticipation of an overhaul of the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against al Qaida and allied groups that supported the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
In every previous speech, interview and congressional testimony, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed “senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces” plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States.
But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders. While saying that the United States is at war with al Qaida and its associated forces, he used a variety of descriptions of potential targets, from “those who want to kill us” and “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat” to “all potential terrorist targets.”
The previous wording also was absent from a fact sheet distributed by the White House. Targeted killings outside of “areas of active hostilities,” it said, could be used against “a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.”
The preconditions for targeted killings set out by Obama and the fact sheet appear to correspond to the findings of a McClatchy review published in April of U.S. intelligence reports that showed the CIA killed hundreds of lower-level suspected Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other” militants in scores of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal are during the height of the operations in 2010-11.
Nearly 4,000 people are estimated to have died in U.S. drone strikes since 2004, the vast majority if them conducted by the CIA in Pakistan’s tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
The fact sheet also said that those who can be killed must pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to “U.S. persons,” setting no geographic limits. Previous administration statements have referred to imminent threats to the United States – the homeland or its interests.
“They appear to be broadening the potential target set,” said Christopher Swift, an international legal expert who teaches national security studies at Georgetown University and closely follows the targeted killing issue.
All of which goes to show that you have to pay very close attention to what Obama's saying because the surface appearance is at odds with the actual substance. Like a basketball player who wants to take a shot and gives you a head fake to try to deceive you into jumping into the air, Obama's head faking the public.
1 The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published two surveys of excess Iraqi deaths (deaths that would not have occurred but for the US invasion), the first on November 20, 2004 and the second on October 12, 2006. The 2006 survey estimated that between 392,979 and 942,636 Iraqis had died as a consequence of the war. A January 28, 2008 survey by Opinion Research Business found excess Iraq deaths of over one million, consistent with The Lancet study. Controversy surrounds the body count, with some arguing that both The Lancet and ORB survey estimates are too high. If, as the VA itself admits, as of 2010, more than fifty thousand Americans have died by suicide alone since the 2001 invasion, then it is reasonable to assume that Iraqi deaths are at least in the high six figures. Whatever one’s conclusions about these numbers in terms of magnitude, even the lowest estimates are exceedingly high for wars based on lies. See Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey, “October 12, 2006, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2806%2969491-9/abstract, accessed February 15, 2011. See also Tina Susman, “Poll: Civilian Death Toll in Iraq May Top 1 Million,” LATimes.com, September 14, 2007, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraq14sep14,1,3979621.story, accessed February 14, 2011.
2 Armen Keteyian, “VA Hid Suicide Risk, Internal E-Mails Show,” CBS News.com, April 21, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/04/21/cbsnews_investigates/main4032921.shtml accessed May 10, 2008:
Last November  when CBS News exposed an epidemic of more than 6,200 suicides in 2005 among those who had served in the military, [Dr. Ira] Katz [the Veteran Administration’s Head of Mental Health] attacked our report.
“Their number is not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the rate,” he said last November.
But it turns out they were, as Katz admitted in [an email] just three days later.
He wrote: there “are about 18 suicides per day among America's 25 million veterans.”
That works out to about 6,570 per year, which Katz admits in the same e-mail, “is supported by the CBS numbers.” [Emphasis in original.]
As of the end of 2010, the US war upon Iraq had been going on for more than seven-and-a-half years. The war upon Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001 and has thus exceeded nine years. Taking March 2003, the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq, as the starting point, this means that conservatively speaking, over fifty thousand American veterans or active duty soldiers have committed suicide since the Iraq war began. As of Spring 2013, this number would be substantially larger. While not all of those suicides can be traced directly to the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them can. The number of veterans among the overall numbers who have been committing suicide is disproportionately among those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and among young veterans. Veterans who kill themselves are much more likely to be those who have served in combat zones compared to those who have not, and the greatest occurrence of suicides occurs among veterans closer to their time that they served as opposed to decades later. See Armen Keteyian, “Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans: A CBS News Investigation Uncovers A Suicide Rate For Veterans Twice That Of Other Americans,” CBSNews.com, November 13, 2007, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/13/cbsnews_investigates/main3496471.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody, accessed March 3, 2011:
So CBS News did an investigation - asking all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records, for veterans and non-veterans, dating back to 1995. Forty-five states sent what turned out to be a mountain of information.
And what it revealed was stunning.
In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.
Dr. Steve Rathbun is the acting head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at the University of Georgia. CBS News asked him to run a detailed analysis of the raw numbers that we obtained from state authorities for 2004 and 2005.
It found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. (Veterans committed suicide at the rate of between 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.)
One age group stood out. Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)