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Obama: Appearances v. Reality

Obama: Appearances vs. Reality

By Dennis Loo (5/25/13)

On May 23, 2013 The New York Times editorialized in praise of Obama’s speech of that same day, calling it a “momentous turning point” because Obama declared that the “war on terror” could not be sustained indefinitely.

One can certainly empathize with the NYT’s editorial board’s desires to take Obama at his word: this WOT has been going on for nearly 12 years with no end in sight. Not only has it led to the deaths of more than a million people and been enormously expensive, but it has produced and is producing increasingly egregious violations of civil liberties, including intensifying attacks on the press’ right to carry out its work, with the recent revelations of the DOJ secretly grabbing the AP’s phone records an example of the WOT’s toxic nature.

Despite the Times’ best wishes, however, Obama and his speech are not what they might appear to be.

To understand what he is actually up to, you have to pay close attention to what he is saying and not be misled by his carefully surrounding what he’s doing with reassuring sounding words and phrases such as “the rule of law” and “transparency.” If you pay close enough attention to his particular phrasing, and to his actual policies and actions, you can clearly see the real meanings.

What Obama said in this speech was not that the WOT was going to end. What Obama is doing is rebranding the WOT and giving it a different focus from the path that Bush and Cheney followed. Whereas Bush and Cheney invaded two countries and began drones’ use in Pakistan (upon candidate Obama’s suggestion), Obama is treating the entire world as a battlefield, not just specific countries invaded and occupied by more traditional methods of waging wars with U.S. boots on the ground. [1]

Under Obama the emphasis is on the more extensive use of drones, an expansion in the definition of what constitutes being an enemy of the state (e.g., who is a “terrorist”), and expanded executive powers to act independently of any other branch of government or public scrutiny, even while claiming to be doing the opposite of each and every one of these things.

Let’s begin with the alleged limitations that he’s placing on drones. As the McClatchy news noticed, Obama has actually expanded the targets for drone warfare:

“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.’”

This brings up the matter of the ongoing shift in how the U.S. government is defining who can be killed by the POTUS. Presidential addresses are worded extremely carefully and people need to take note of the momentousness of this.

In my 2011 book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society I analyze the origins of, context for, and various manifestations of this new political order that Obama as POTUS is the current and leading political representative for. This new order reflects the supplanting of the Keynesian Welfare State by the Neoliberal State. Neoliberalism – aka free market fundamentalism - is the ruling doctrine today, adhered to by both the Republican and Democratic Parties in the U.S. This neoliberal state is governed by a specific logic – the logic of dispossession and disenfranchisement of the 99%:

Because neoliberalism produces growing disparities within the populace inside nations, between nations, and between regions, it demands and requires the increasingly generous application of force, intimidation, and deception to defend these disparities. Because persuading people to cooperate and follow the rules based on positive incentives is less and less an option since positive incentives themselves are being sharply cut back, negative incentives are necessarily being employed more and more to maintain social control. These negative incentives take two fundamental forms: fearmongering and coercion. Frighten the people about some external and internal enemies and strong-arm them into believing that extraordinary measures must be adopted to deal with these enemies, including unconstitutional and extralegal surveillance, detention, preemptive raids and invasions, rewriting laws to suit an unrestrained state, arrests of demonstrators before they demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights and charging them as “terrorists,” beatings, torture, murder, and assassination. These are the new politics, endorsed and employed by both major parties; they are used more explicitly by the GOP, but the distinction between the two parties is only of tone, not overall of kind.

Convincing people that they should support (or at least not actively oppose) public policies that are against their interests via ideological and political stratagems continues to be important, and the ways in which this is being carried out deserve their own chapter (see Chapter Six). But because of the increasing gap between the representation and the actuality, and because the winners in this game grow fewer and fewer relative to the losers (with the winners a fraction of the top one percent and the really big winners almost few enough to fit into a palatial mansion), propaganda can only go so far; coercion and intimidation must assume an increasingly larger burden in the exercise of social control. Moreover, persuasion itself has more and more taken on the form of cynical manipulation through fear-mongering and more extensive lying and censorship. Playing to and feeding the public’s fears fosters people’s primitive emotional states that supplant rational decision-making. When you are aroused by fear, your ability to think rationally is compromised. (GDS, pp. 97-98)

This explains how it is that a “terrorist” has been inflated to mean essentially whatever those in authority claim it to mean. As one example of this, until 2009 when I wrote about it and as a result of the furor about it that ensued led to cosmetic changes, the DoD was training all of its employees that “protest” was a form of “low-level terrorism.” 

How could a president who touts his background in Constitutional Law be presiding over a military that is training its ranks to treat protest as a form of terrorism? Doesn’t that strike at the heart of the very thing that most Americans think distinguish America from other tyrannical forms of government – the right to free assembly and speech?

A new form of governance worldwide has become the norm since the early 1980s. It’s called public order policies (POP). POP feature ubiquitous warrantless state surveillance that treats everyone as a suspect. Anyone can be subjected to state coercion based upon what you might do, not just what you have putatively done. You can be punished, tortured, and/or killed because you pose a possible threat or because you have blown the whistle on the increasingly secret doings of the security state. This is why Obama has hounded and persecuted more than twice the number of whistleblowers than all prior U.S. presidents in history combined.

POP did not come about as a result of 9/11. It predates 9/11. 9/11 and incidents like it are the public rationale for POP but not the reason for POP. Tapping of all Americans’ phones and electronic activities such as email and web surfing began seven months before 9/11 in February of 2001, shortly after Bush and Cheney took over the White House. Why? If the basis for people to co-operate with authorities is constantly being undercut, then keeping people in line must requires both more state coercion and more deception about what is going on and why.

Reinterpreting protest and poverty as terrorism is a trend that stretches across continents and that includes all of the major political parties in the world’s nations. This explains what for many people is otherwise inexplicable: the perpetuation, further elaboration, and institutionalization under Democrat Barack Obama of the national security state measures that Bush and Cheney spearheaded. Obama and the Democratic Party leadership are continuing on the path that was already underway before Bush, dating back to the late 1970s. What Bush and Cheney did that was different was openly breach the wall of the rule of law.

The sensitivity and momentousness of this breach explains why Obama ran on a platform of restoring the rule of law, restoring habeas corpus, and ending atrocities such as torture: Bush and Cheney’s practices had been so widely reviled and were so fundamental a rupture from the previous social contract of governments with their people that reviving people’s confidence in their government had to be done lest fracturing and resultant upheavals ensued. What Obama has in fact done has been the repackaging of these practices.

When running for office and after taking office, Obama made a point of saying that he believes in, and is implementing, transparency in government:

Just weeks after taking office, the Obama administration adopted an unprecedented policy of sunlight, directing bureaucrats across government to “apply a presumption of openness” regarding the release of documents to the public, according to a memo by Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.

Obama’s policy does not cover an important part of the White House: the Office of Administration, which oversees much of the day-to-day functions of the president’s own office and staff.

In 2007, then-president George W. Bush, whose penchant for secrecy was a reliable villain in Obama’s campaign speeches, became the first president to declare the White House Office of Administration off-limits to public inquiries. At the time, Bush was engaged in a heated court battle with good government groups over access to information about a massive batch of missing White House e-mails.

A federal court ruled in favor of the Bush administration, agreeing that the office was not technically an “agency” as defined by FOIA, and was not required to abide by the openness law.

Today, the Obama White House Web site announces that the Office of Administration “is not subject to FOIA and related authorities.”

In a May 21, 2009, speech at the National Archives, Obama said this about the “War on Terror”:

We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who’ve received extensive explosives training at al-Qaida training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture—like other prisoners of war—must be prevented from attacking us again.

If the people he will not release cannot be released because the evidence against them is tainted—because they were tortured to obtain the “evidence”—then that is not the fault of the individual detainee; that is the result of criminal acts by the US government. This stands in direct contradiction to Obama’s campaign pledge that he would restore habeas corpus because holding innocents is “not what we do.” In his National Archives speech, Obama hastened to add that the decision to hold someone who has not been found guilty of any crimes should not be the action of the executive branch alone and that detention should not be open ended. “That’s why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we do not make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.” How does one square abridging habeas corpus with ensuring you are “in line with the rule of law?” How do you have “lawful standards” when you are breaking the law itself to do it? (GDS, pp. 155-157)

Obama’s continuing protestations that he wants to close Guantanamo because it is bad for the U.S.’s reputation in the world while falsely attributing his failure to release prisoners to Congress and while personally putting up roadblocks to prevent anyone being released and shutting the prison down is a concentrated example of what Obama really stands for. Obama says that he wants to do something and that he believes in doing something while actually doing the opposite.

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.

Were Obama to have an epiphany and actually dare to act outside the parameters of the acceptable for the imperialist empire, he knows what would happen to him. Thus, the answer lies not with Obama but with the people. The people must, as I wrote in the NYT ad, “stand up for principle and morality when their institutions and public officials refuse to do so. The fates of those who are maimed or killed by our government’s policies are inextricably intertwined with our own…”

Obama’s role at this point in history is as Bush III: he is institutionalizing and carrying further the radically extremist policies of his predecessors under the cover of keeping it all legal and transparent.

This artful deception has led the Times’ editors to be deceived by Obama’s latest speech. There is a heavy dose of wishful thinking among those who continue to believe that Obama is on the side of the angels, a grouping that obviously exceeds the ranks of Times’ editors and includes a large segment of the American people. The world as a whole, however, is not fooled and growing numbers of Americans are beginning to wake up to the reality of this president. That is evidenced, for example, by the very breadth of the people who include at this point leading and highly respected individuals in the arts, academia and the legal community who have signed our Close Guantanamo Now! Statement.

Obama’s most recent dissembling, as seductive as it is to many, is running up against the reality of the objective world. The heroic and desperate actions of the hunger strikers are forcing Obama’s hand and inspiring the world. The inescapable reality of the GTMO prisoners’ situation, the ongoing drone killings, the fact that torture has not ended, the increasing precedents being set for more and more unfettered executive powers, and the vengeful attacks on whistleblowers all tell a different story than that contained in Obama’s rhetorical flourishes.



 [1] See Jeremy Scahill’s new book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, which he discusses in an interview with Amy Goodman here.

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