Emperor Obama

Obama is certainly a good diplomat. He’s given an interview to a fawning journalist from the Saudi-owned Arabiyah channel (as opposed to the more credible Jazeera) in which he talks nice. Examine his words, however, and you see that the basic parameters have not budged an inch. ‘Israel’s security’ remains paramount; Hamas and Hizbullah are implicitly labelled terrorist (Iran supports terrorist organisations); the liberation of Palestine is reduced to an issue of economic development. On the ground, meanwhile, Obama’s first week was marked by the imperial murder of tens of civilians in Pakistan. Richard Seymour  provides an excellent analysis here:

The first Democratic president in the modern era to be elected on an anti-war ticket is also, to the relief of neocons and the liberal belligerati, a hawk. Committed to escalation in Afghanistan, his foreign policy selections also indicate bellicosity towards Sudan and Iran. During his first week in office he sanctioned two missile attacks in Pakistan, killing 22 people, including women and children. And his stance on Gaza is remarkably close to that of the outgoing administration. The question now is how Obama will convince his supporters to back that stance. Bush could rely on a core constituency whose commitment to peace and human rights is, at the very least, questionable. Obama has no such luxury. In making his case, he will need the support of those “liberal hawks” who gave Bush such vocal support.

It is tempting to dismiss the “pro-war left” as a congeries of discredited left-wing apostates and Nato liberals. Their artless euphemisms for bloody conquest seem especially redundant in light of over a million Iraqi deaths. Yet their arguments, ranging from a paternalistic defence of “humanitarian intervention” to the championing of “western values”, have their origins in a tradition of liberal imperialism whose durability advises against hasty dismissal. In every country whose rulers have opted for empire, there has developed among the intellectual classes a powerful pro-imperial consensus, with liberals and leftwingers its most vociferous defenders.

Liberal imperialists have resisted explicitly racist arguments for domination, instead justifying empire as a humane venture delivering progress. Even so, implicit in such a stance was the belief that other peoples were inferior. Just as John Stuart Mill contended that despotism was a “legitimate mode of government in dealing with the barbarians” provided “the end be their improvement”, so the Fabians contended that self-government for “native races” was “as useless to them as a dynamo to a Caribbean”. Intellectuals of the Second International such as Eduard Bernstein regarded the colonised as incapable of self-government. For many liberals and socialists of this era, the only disagreement was over whether the natives could attain the disciplined state necessary to run their own affairs. Indigenous resistance, moreover, was interpreted as “native fanaticism”, to be overcome with European tuition.

The current liberal imperialists are not replicas of their 19th-century antecedents. Cold war priorities, including the need to incorporate elements of the left into an anti-communist front, transformed the culture of empire. If the “anti-totalitarian” left supported US expansionism, they often did so under the mantle of anti-colonialism. Decolonisation and the civil rights struggle meant explicit racism had to be dispensed with in arguments for military intervention.

This was a slow process. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations were terrified of “premature independence” for colonised nations. The state department asserted that “backward societies” required authoritarianism to prepare them for modernity. Irving Kristol, a cold war liberal who became the “godfather of neoconservatism”, justified the Vietnam war in part by asserting that the country was “barely capable of decent self-government under the very best of conditions”, and thus needed its US-imposed dictatorship. Nonetheless, such arguments today tend to be rehearsed only on the wilder shores of the neoconservative right.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, some paternalistic mainstays of liberal imperialism have been reinvented under the impress of “humanitarian intervention”. Just as Victorian humanitarians saw the empire as the appropriate tool for saving the oppressed, so the 1990s saw demands for the US military to deliver Somalians, Bosnians and Kosovans from their tormentors – notwithstanding the fact that US intervention played a destructive role in each case.

The agency of the oppressed themselves is largely absent from this perspective. And, as New York University’s Stephen Holmes pointed out: “By denouncing the United States primarily for standing by when atrocity abroad occurs, these well-meaning liberals have helped re-popularise the idea of America as a potentially benign imperial power.”

The catastrophe in Iraq has produced a reaction against humanitarian imperialism even from former interventionists like David Rieff, who has warned against the “rebirth of imperialism with human rights as its moral warrant”. Even so, among liberal intellectuals there is a broad coalition favouring intervention into Darfur, though humanitarian organisations have opposed the idea. And there is little resistance to the escalation in Afghanistan, where “native fanaticism” is once more the enemy. Liberal imperialism is in rude health: it is its victims who are in mortal peril.

• Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder leninstombblog@googlemail.com

5 thoughts on “Emperor Obama”

  1. First of all I would suggest you look further into the “fawning journalist” aka Hisham Melhem, he is a very objective reporter who has a long and distinguished background.

    Now to your points – I agree that Obama’s arguments on the surface appear to be the same as Bush’s with respect to Gaza and Pakistan. But what I keep wondering about the calls for Obama to condemn attacks, the calls for Obama to stop attacks in Pakistan, the calls for Obama to stop ignoring Hamas–

    –what if he did all that? Is it not glaringly obvious how bad of a chokehold AIPAC has on the politics of this country, the chokehold the military-industrial complex has on our government, and what could possibly happen to Obama if he were to, without any hesitation, sweep in and begin to undermine all these parties.

    For example–let’s say Obama does everything that I personally would love to see happen–if Obama cut off all support for Israel, opened direct talks with Hamas, went in the face of the most popular commander in the military (Petraeus) and demanded an end to military operations in Afghanistan, and also an immediate pullout of troops from Iraq–these 3rd parties–defense contractor companies, AIPAC, and even the US public (which has been sold on Petraeus) would all spit in his face and angrily call for his head.

    In fact I would even suggest that the dark powers behind the American political scene could either produce some serious scandal to tie up the President or do something even worse if he blatantly goes against their interests.

    So he has to do it one step at a time. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

    This man’s history, his roots, and his personal character (politics aside) should speak for themselves. Based on that, what I think is happening here is that Obama is using the resources he has at his disposal and is tiptoeing around all these minefields to try to accomplish what had in the past seemed impossible. Put aside the cynicism for a second–no president has ever addressed Muslims or the Muslim world so directly before in his inauguration. This interview was not just “an interview,” it was THE first interview he gave as President. He’s planning on making an address in a Muslim Country in 100 days. His Mideast Ambassador is Lebanese.

    Granted, it still falls short of the ideal actions I (and yourself) would like him to take, but can’t these initial steps be acknowledged? This was a guy who convinced a country built on the backs of slaves with a still deeply engendered racist mentality to make him, an African-American, the most powerful man in the world. He played the game and he won. If he can do that, I have little doubt that what we are seeing play out before us right now is the same persuasion being used to accomplish something in the Middle East.

    In other words, this is no ordinary politician, and I would wait before making sweeping, cynical judgments about what his true motives and intentions are and what moves are being made behind the scenes, even as actions and words play out that would seem to suggest the status quo is well in place.

    Give it a year, and if there’s still no change at all, then you’re probably right.

  2. ZX – I called the journalist fawning because in this interview he fawns. Have a look and see. I thought of four or five ways of challenging Obama’s statements as I watched the interview. This journalist didn’t challenge him once.

    As angryarab pointed out today, it would have been nice if Obama had given his first interview to al-Jazeera, the most popular and respected channel in the Arab world, and not to the tame, Saudi-owned Arabiyyeh.

    I have no doubt that Obama’s election marks a great, historic moment for the African-American struggle for equality. I’ve read Obama’s “Dreams from my Father” and found it in the main intelligent, openminded and well-written. Domestically, it really does mark a change that Obama has been elected president. He has released all kinds of positive popular energies. Perhaps in some indirect way the sense of change in America as a result of his election has been partly responsible for the shift in public opinion we are seeing with regard to Zionism.

    What I am writing against here is the notion that the election of a bright black man is going to change the main thrust of American imperial-Zionist policy in the Middle East and South Asia. It may be that Obama is a secret anti-Zionist. He may believe in Trotskyist permanent revolution for all I know. But all that is irrelevant; as you yourself suggest, the problem is deeper than the president. He has the establishment to deal with. Anyway, on all the evidence we’ve seen so far, he doesn’t want to take on the establishment. I could pick apart what he said in his interview if I had time, and none of it looks good. Just one example: he said the Palestine-Israel problem is linked to “Syria and Lebanon”. I think this means that Syria and Lebanon (Hizbullah) will have to be made to change in order to make “paramount” Israel feel more comfortable. He didn’t say Palestine-Israel is linked to the problem of corrupt dictatorships in Saudi or Egypt. Of course he didn’t: he gave his first interview to a station owned by the Saudi royal family.

    Obama suggested bombing Pakistan before Bush made it policy. This was his own initiative. Obama made a disgusting speech to AIPAC. No, he didn’t have to. If he were really interested in justice and change, in having a national debate, rather than power for power’s sake, he could have done something different. And look who is on his team: Clinton, who said today that Israel’s massacre in Gaza was justified self-defence, and Dennis Ross for God’s sake, and the neo-con Holbrooke, and then Mitchell, who is marginally better than Ross, but is still a Zionist, and worked under the Bill Clinton administration.

    Mitchell has a Lebanese-American mother. Apparently he considers himself Irish, however. And what does having a Lebanese mother mean? Elie Hobeiqa had a Lebanese mother! Norman Finkelstein is a Jew. Does that mean he’s a Zionist? I mean, Mubarak is the son of an Arab. That must mean he’s dedicated to the destruction of Zionism and American imperialism!

    This is the empire we’re dealing with. On Obama’s brief watch it has already murdered Pakistani civilians. In this context, I think we should talk about the idiocy rather than the audacity of hope.

  3. Give it a year, and if there’s still no change at all, then you’re probably right.

    What a luxury if we could just call off the genocide of Palestinians and the bombing of Pakistanis and the further ruination of Afghanis’ lives for that year.

    You KNOW he has the facts, that Jimmy Carter if no one else has made them clear to him, and EVEN if it is suicide to piss off the Israel Lobby too much, he could at least have left Abu Mazen out of the loop and come up with a better and more believable plan for relieving the siege of Gaza.

    He’s known all along that he had to be ready to hop on it from Day One, and he had a full three weeks to come up with something better than that as his position regarding the extermination of Palestinians.

    THEY don’t have a year.

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