In the years since my book was published I’ve written many blogs about Barack Obama. How could I not? He was anointed King for a while in this version of our national myth. In each essay I attempted to temper my expectations as well as my growing anger and grief, with a broader, mythological perspective and more questions than answers. What story are we in? What story calls to us? I invite interested readers to review them:
Blog # 9: The Presidential Dilemma
Blog # 17: The Face of the Empire
Blog # 38: Obama and the Myth of Innocence
Blog # 40: The Ritual of the (2012) Presidential Debates:
Blog # 46: Obama’s Tears
Blog # 69: The Con Man: An American Archetype, Part Two
Blog # 70: Obama’s War on Syria
Blog # 71: The Con-Man, Part Three
Earlier, I listed five generalized, potential assessments of Obama, the first four of which assumed that he (that is, his carefully crafted image) was essentially of a good man who was limited by either his own incompetence or by a corrupt or completely broken political system. The fifth offered a darker view of the con-man.
Now, after eight years of speculations, I have to suggest another possible grade. It would begin by observing something I missed back in 2010, that Obama’s choices for his top national security advisers had been praised by none other than the butcher of Viet Nam, Guatemala, Chile and East Timor, Henry Kissinger.
Myth # 6 – Bombs Away! The Pentagon’s man.
The United States remains involved – let’s stop being nice – a more appropriate word is complicit – in every significant conflict in the world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, Ukraine, Turkey, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Albania, Poland, Romania, Venezuela, Honduras, Belize, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, Korea, Haiti, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia, Mali, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and many, many other countries.
If you don’t know that American special operations forces are operating in 138 countries (double the number during the Bush years), or that the U.S. dropped over 26,000 bombs on Muslim countries in 2016, or that Obama’s drone strikes have killed over 300 people at wedding parties alone,
or that the U.S. has built airbases inside Syria – a sovereign nation – you haven’t been paying attention. And why should you? The President has such lovely daughters.
I’m suggesting that every President at least since Truman has served above all as a spokesperson – a press secretary – for the national security state, and that this state exists for six reasons:
1 – To protect U.S. corporations and ensure control of worldwide energy supplies.
2 – To enrich the defense industry by provoking a state of constant war in as many places as possible. As George Orwell supposedly said, “the war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.”
3 – To maintain a state of perpetual fear in the American population.
4 – To retain the support of certain voting blocs and maintain the illusion of democratic processes.
5 – To expand itself, its power, its budget and its influence infinitely.
6 – To provoke regular opportunities for the ritual, willing sacrifice of large numbers of young Americans. It is absolutely critical to understand this essentially mythic and religious dimension of the problem, so clearly and bluntly articulated by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in their short but essential book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.
For example, continuing the decades-long demonization of both Cuba and Iran into the sixth year of his presidency was an example of (2), (3) and (4). But reducing sanctions and opening up trade with those two nations exemplified (1) because Big Business coveted those markets, not because it was the right thing to do, and certainly not because of the pressure of public opinion. Charles Hugh Smith writes:
The Deep State requires relatively little of elected officials, even the President. A rubber stamp of existing policies is the primary requirement…But the Deep State prefers a leader that can successfully sell the Deep State’s agenda to the American public.
For a more detailed understanding of the Deep State, read Peter Dale Scott here.
Perhaps “Propagandist-in Chief” is an even better description of the function of the President. As C.J. Hopkins writes:
…official propaganda is not designed to deceive the public (no more than the speeches in an actor’s script are intended to deceive the actor who speaks them). It is designed to be absorbed and repeated, no matter how implausible or preposterous it might be. Actually, it is often most effective when those who are forced to robotically repeat it know that it is utter nonsense, as the humiliation of having to do so cements their allegiance to the ruling classes…The point is to draw…a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative… Conforming does not require belief. It requires allegiance and rote obedience.
Granted again and again: Obama inherited the failures of the Bush administration (were they failures in terms of the six categories above?), but we are talking about policies that have remained essentially unchanged for decades, regardless of which of the major parties appears to be running things. And eventually we have to honestly confront the difference between policies that failed, policies wrecked by the GOP opposition, and non-mistakes: deliberately conceived policies that directly or indirectly caused the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of people. And we are the point in assessing Obama where we cross the line from Mark Twain’s “imbeciles who really mean it” to “smart people who are putting us on.”
As Noam Chomsky has taught for fifty years – and as most liberals still staunchly and innocently refuse to admit – the United States (along with its client states, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) is the primary terrorist state in the world. To not begin any discussion of American politics by acknowledging this fact in is to be either complicit or ignorant. Or both. Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy? A: I don’t know and I don’t care. And to not at least suggest that the War on Terror has been a colossal fraud is to ignore the evidence that has been mounting from start to non-finish.
It is not quibbling to point out that Obama followed all of his recent predecessors in supporting the most brutal dictatorships on the planet. But why didn’t his wars provoke massive public outcry? Four reasons:
1 – He kept the (American) body count relatively low through the use of mercenaries (otherwise known as “civilian contractors”), drones and long-distance air bombings.
2 – The Pentagon was not stupid enough to demand that he re-introduce the draft.
3 – Obama followed every President since Lyndon Johnson and colluded with Congress to not raise taxes to pay for his wars, choosing instead to pass the costs onto future generations.
3 – Let’s be honest here. How could liberals criticize a Black president, even when he debased the notion of liberalism? The peace movement collapsed, having diverted its attention to the Presidential election, and never recovered its enthusiasm.
A trade-off, perhaps? Conventional political science will counter that a liberal president must accede to such traditional militarism and waste in order to pursue minor, incremental progress in domestic affairs. And we must certainly acknowledge the Republican determination to stall any of his projects. Yes, and – what about all those billions that the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, etc, lavished upon right-wing media? Obama could have leveled the playing field with one stroke of his pen by enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, he eliminated it.
I really want to stress here that this essay is not about gratuitous bashing, and it’s not about “I told you so.” My business is to invite readers to get comfortable inhabiting the space between the polar opposites. What are those opposites? One is the possibility of who we might become and the new stories struggling to be born. The other is who we are now as a culture, and the leaders who embody our old, toxic stories. But to open ourselves to the former, we simply must drop our default mode of naiveté, idealization and innocence and unblinkingly acknowledge the depths of the latter.
This is especially important as the fascist Trump consolidates power. Ever since the election, liberal media (both news and social) have been flooded with attempts to de-legitimize the new president. He certainly deserves such ill treatment; don’t get me wrong. But the shadow of this phenomenon is the desperate attempt of liberals to shore up their sense that Clinton and the old dinosaur establishment of the Democratic Party are more progressive and less corrupt than the Republicans, and to avoid real self-examination.
These efforts, in other words, are attempts to convince ourselves of the legitimacy of our own stories about ourselves. They are forms of cognitive dissonance, ways in which we resist the encroachment of reality. And one of the primary ways liberals do this is by praising the accomplishments of the outgoing King and contrasting his ideals, his morals, his family and his standards of decency – in other words, his brand – with that of the barbarian who has entered the castle.
And in a spirit of fairness, before I offer an unfortunate and extended litany intended to disabuse readers of such innocent fantasies, here is an article that purports to list some 400 of Obama’s accomplishments despite eight years of Republican obstruction. Some of the items are indeed laudable, even exemplary – after all, he did have a population to serve and favors to pay. Some were efforts that would have passed without his support or were clearly in the interests of powerful players. Others were obviously watered down, unfunded and punchless, perhaps deliberately so. Still others had no financial impact on established power interests and could then be pursued with few political costs. Every politician does this.
Still others amount to no more than rhetoric intended to temporarily please liberal constituencies. Remember John Mitchell: Watch what we do, not what we say.
Were there differences with the Republicans? Of course, especially on abortion rights and global warming. After that, however, it gets a bit hazy. Standing outside the myth of American Innocence, we might well admit that the two major parties, at least when it comes to imperial pretentions, are nearly indistinguishable. Both Obama and the Clintons showed that they were as willing to overthrow democracy in the Third World as Trump will be. It really is possible that the 2016 election was between the party that wants to make war on Russia and the party that wants to make war on China.
And here we discover the precise nature of the con: “If the Bush-Cheney administration were doing this to us,” wrote Bruce Dixon, “we’d be out in the streets over it.”
I’m not denying that Obama pushed through some mild, incrementally positive changes. The ruling classes understand the need to do this. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. And I’m fully aware of how much time and money the Republicans invested in obstruction – sixty attempts to repeal Obamacare alone – but at some point we have to turn our gaze away from that scenario and ask about darker intentions. Or, as I’ve been suggesting, forget intentions. Look only at actions. We’ll look first at domestic policies, then financial, then foreign.