Imperial Morality and Selective Apology

I  re-post (below) an essay titled "Letters of No Apology" (from last August) in the wake of Emperor Obama’s latest atrocity in Afghanistan (the U.S. killing of at least 120 civilians last Sunday), for which no forced resignations are contemplated as far as we can tell.

This is perfect.  A White House official scares New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover that reminds people of 9/11 and he loses his job. The president issues a formal apology for the terrible mistake.

Meanwhile the U.S. miltiary blows ten dozen Afghan civilians to bits from the sky (in continuation of the thoroughly illegal invasion launched in misdirected racist and pipeline-related reprisal for 9/11) and gets away with trying to blame it on Taliban grenades. No presidential apologies or acceptance of American blame are required.

Stay with me here…Scaring New Yorkers requires a full presidential apology (along with the loss of a White House job).  Killing 120 Afghan civilians does not require a presidential apology.  Nobody has to be fired.  And the imperial gendarmes are permitted to make up childishly ridiculous stories about how the civilians died —- stories that are taken seriosuly by "mainstream" (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media!!!

Orwell, Vonnegut, and Kafka would be impressed.

But it’s standard operating procedure in the U.S. today and has been for many decades. You, my fellow Americans, are living in a totalitarian society.

When will all our nice warmed-over blood-soaked Cold War liberal Democrats admit that their new hero in the White House — their supposed "peace president" (what childish pseudo-progressive arch-naiveté it was to have ever believed that) —- is, well, another, hmmm, err.. ummm …War Criminal, just like Bill Clinton? (Answer: "never, but before his ‘Af-Pak’ body count goes over 50,000 would be nice") .Don’t hold your breath. Most Democrats I know are too ignorant, indoctrinated ("We are a Force for Good in the World" — repeat over and over again) and/or cynical to ever admit such an elementary fact.

The essay:

Letters of No Apology
August 01, 2008

By Paul Street

"Those people are dead because we wanted them dead."
- Pentagon spokesman on the killing of 93 people in Chowkar-Karaz, fall of 2001

Should Barack Obama’s volunteers mail "Letters of No Apology" to survivors of the large number of people killed by U.S. imperial assault in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Recently Obama was asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley if "there’s anything that’s happened in the past 7 1/2 years that the U.S. needs to apologize for in terms of foreign policy?" Obama responded by saying, "No, I don’t believe in the U.S. apologizing. As I said I think the war in Iraq was a mistake. We didn’t keep our eye on the ball in Afghanistan. But, you know, hindsight is 20/20, and I’m much more interested in looking forward rather than looking backwards." The United States, Obama told Crowley, "remains overwhelmingly a force of good in the world" [1].


I would like the Afghan "war" [2] enthusiast [3] Barack Obama to write a Letter of No Apology to Orifa Ahmed. On October 7, 2001, Orifa’s house in the Afghan village of Bibi Mahru was destroyed by a 500-pound bomb dropped by an American F-16 plane. The explosion killed her husband (a carpet weaver), six of her children and two children, who lived (and died) next door. Away visiting relatives when the bombing occurred, Orifa returned to find pieces of her children’s flesh scattered around the killing site. She received $400 from U.S. authorities to compensate her for her losses [4].

I would also like Obama to write a "Letter of No Apology" to Gulam Rasul, a school headmaster in the Afghan town of Khair Khana. On the morning of October 21, 2001, the United States dropped a 500-pound bomb on his house, killing his wife, three of his sons, his sister and her husband, his brother, and his sister-in-law [5].

Another "Letter of Apology" should go to Sher Kahn, an old man who lost seven relatives when the United States assaulted the Afghan village of Niazi Qala on December 29, 2001. Here is how the British author and filmmaker John Pilger describes the attack:

"The roar of the planes had started at three in the morning, long after everybody had retired for the night. Then the bombs began to fall – 500-pounders leading the way, scooping out the earth and felling a row of houses. According to neighbors watching from a distance, the planes flew three sorties over the village and a helicopter hovered close to the ground, firing flares, then rockets. Women and children were seen running from the houses towards a dried pond, perhaps in search of protection from the gunfire, but were shot as they ran" [6].

"Letters of No Apology" should also go from the "antiwar" Obama campaign to survivors of:

* 35 Afghan refugees who were bombed by the U.S. for riding in a bus in flight from U.S. assault.

* 160 Afghanis killed in repeated U.S. bombings of the village of Karam.

* 93 people killed when U.S. Ac 130 gun-ships strafed the small farming village Chowkar-Karaz. (The Pentagon said the community was "supporting terrorists" and therefore deserved its fate: "those people are dead," a Pentagon spokesman told reporters, "because we wanted them dead.")

* Rampant U.S. torture of civilians and non-combatants employed as part of the "war on terror" at the Bagram military base, near Kabul, since the fall of 2001.

* 64 civilians killed when the U.S. bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan in early July of this year (This was the fourth wedding party blown up by the U.S.-led "coalition" since the fall of 2001).

* 19 women who died in the gynecology wing of a Kabul hospital bombed by the U.S. in October of 2001.

* The countless other U.S. attacks on Afghan villages that have added to a civilian death toll that certainly goes well into the thousands since the U.S. initiated its "liberation" of Afghanistan from a Taliban government the U.S. largely put into place during the 1990s [7].

The people of Afghanistan can be forgiven for thinking it might not be all bad if Uncle Sam has occasionally taken his eye off "the ball in Afghanistan."

U.S.-"liberated" Afghanistan remains desperately poor and violence-plagued under the control of religious extremists, warlords and the deadly U.S. Empire. Women are less safe there now than under the Taliban [8].


For what it’s worth, prominent legal scholar Marjorie Cohn notes that "the invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq." As Cohn explains:

"The U.N. Charter provides that all member states must settle their international disputes by peaceful means, and no nation can use military force except in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After the 9/11 attacks, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan."

"The invasion of Afghanistan was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter because the attacks on September 11 were criminal attacks, not ‘armed attacks’ by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the United States. In fact, 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11, or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign. The necessity for self-defense must be ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’ This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly" [9].

Sold as a legitimate defensive response to the jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was undertaken without definitive proof or knowledge that that country’s largely U.S.-created Taliban government was responsible in any way for 9/11. It occurred after the Bush administration rebuffed efforts by that government to possibly extradite accused 9/11 planners to stand trial in the U.S. The U.S. sought to destroy the Taliban government with no legal claim to introduce regime change in another sovereign state. The invasion took place over the protest of numerous Afghan opposition leaders and in defiance of aid organizations who expected a U.S. attack to produce a humanitarian catastrophe. And, as Noam Chomsky noted in 2003, U.S. claims to possess the right to bomb Afghanistan – an action certain to produce significant casualties – raised the interesting question of whether Cuba and Nicaragua were entitled to set off bombs in the U.S. given the fact that the U.S. provided shelter to well-known terrorists shown to have conducted murderous attacks on the Cuban and Nicaraguan people and governments [10]. Under Bush’s rationale for launching his assault on Afghanistan (an attack that Obama wishes to significantly expand), citizens of Latin American states whose dictatorships were schooled in torture at the School of the Americas (Ft. Benning, Georgia) would be free to attack American cities and villages.


As for the U.S. "mistake" in Iraq, where to begin with the Letters of No Apology that Obama and his staff need to write? The U.S. has undertaken a highly criminal occupation of that country against the wishes of the "liberated" nation’s own populace. In a marvelous example of what Obama called (in Berlin last week) U.S. "sacrifice" for "freedom"[11], the U.S. has inflicted a bloody Holocaust on Mesopotamia, killing (directly and indirectly) as many as 1.2 million Iraqis and maiming and displacing many millions more. According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen last December, "Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century. Only fools talk of solutions now. There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained" [12].

I wonder what Rosen would have had to say about the following comment offered by Barack Obama to autoworkers assembled at the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin on February 13, 2008, just before that state’s Democratic primary: "It’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together" [13].

"We should support the millions of Iraqis," Obama told 200,000 rapt listeners in Berlin, "who seek to rebuild their lives even as we pass on responsibility to the Iraqi government"[14].

"Rebuild their lives" from exactly what, pray tell? Senator Obama did not elaborate on the two U.S. military attacks, the decade plus of murderous "economic sanctions" (which killed more than half a million children – a cost that the current Obama advisor and supporter Madeline Albright called a "price worth paying"), and the ongoing invasion’s ever-climbing death toll. Obama will continue the occupation as president, something known by those who care to read between the lines of his populace-pleasing campaign rhetoric.

Reading Obama’s line about "freedom"-loving America’s overseas "sacrifice" in his Berlin Address, I was reminded of something he said in a speech to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in the fall of 2006: "The American people have been extraordinarily resolved [in alleged support of the Iraq "war" - P.S.]. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah [15].

This was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for colossal U.S. war atrocity – the crimes 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. 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 to choose to highlight American "sacrifice" and "resolve" in the brazenly imperialist occupation – described as "a colonial war" by the grand U.S. imperial strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski (an Obama foreign policy advisor) – of Iraq [16].

Recycling the imperial discourse of elite Democratic "doves" during and on the Vietnam War [17], Obama insists that the monumentally illegal and transparently petro-colonial occupation of Iraq was a "strategic blunder" resulting from "our" over-zealous "good intentions" (sometimes we just get a little crazy with our noble passion to spread liberty).

Not true: Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.) is an imperial CRIME (aggressive warfare was the top crime for which Nazi leaders were executed at Nuremburg) obviously dedicated to deepening U.S. control over hyper-strategic oil resources in the world’s energy heartland while serving the ongoing interests of the American military-industrial complex [18].

Barack No Apology (Because We Are Good) Obama wants badly to expand what he calls George W. Bush’s "good" and "proper" war on Afghanistan while claiming to want to reduce America’s "mistake[n]" presence in Iraq.

The world should beware. Superpower may be getting ready to take on some outwardly new faces, but its dangerous national narcissism will live on along with its empire of bases, bullets, and bombs.

Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). His next book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm: mid-August of 2008, can be advance ordered at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987).


1. "Transcript of Obama Interview on CNN" (July 25, 2008), The Page, read at http://thepage.time.com/transcript-of-obama-interview-on-cnn/. Regarding "force for good": never mind that the hyper-consumerist automobile-addicted U.S. is home to 5 percent of world’s population but generates a quarter of the planet’s climate-baking carbon emissions. Forget the brazenly imperial 720-plus U.S. military bases that are stationed in nearly country on Earth, the threat and recurrent reality of U.S. military assault, the U.S.-spread mass culture of commodified nothingness, and the dedicated U.S. advance of a negative (corporate) globalization model that consigns billions to extreme poverty while the ever richer planetary Few enjoy spectacular opulence (and related political hyper-power) and you begin to get a sense of why many world citizens might think "America is part of what has gone wrong in the world."

2. It is getting tiresome to hear Obama repeatedly refer to the United States as living "in a time of war." The U.S. is engaged in one-sided imperial violence against Iraq and Afghanistan. The "force for good" is "waging a colonial war" (Zbigniew Bzrezinski) on relatively defenseless others in distant imperial hinterlands. Ordinary Americans are not living through "wartime conditions" and are in fact being encouraged to stay soft, consumerist, spectator-ized, and demobilized, though a relatively small and disproportionately working-class segment of the U.S. populace is enlisted into the hard culture of militarism (the U.S. power elite having learned from Vietnam not to involve the general populace in ugly colonial campaigns abroad). For some useful reflections, see Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) and (on class, Vietnam, and military recruitment) Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World (New York: Metropolitan, 2005), pp. 133-134.

3. For some interesting details from the primary campaign trail, see Paul Street, "Obama’s Good and ‘Proper’ War," ZNet (March 5, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16760.

4. John Pilger, Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (New York: Nation Books, 2007), pp. 284-85.

5. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, pp.285-86.

6. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, p. 286.

7. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, pp. 287-293; John Pilger, "Obama, The Prince of Bait and Switch," The New Statesman, July 26, 2008. For details on sources on hundreds of U.S. and related "coalition" and Northern Alliance attacks leading to many civilian deaths between the fall of 2001 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, see University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold, "Daily Casualty Account of Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombing and Special Forces Attack, October 7 [2001] Until Present Day" (March 15, 2003), read at http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold/

8. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, pp. 264-293.

9. Marjorie Cohn, "End the Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan," ZNet (July 30, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18303.

10. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003), pp. 199-206. See also Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terror (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), p. 21.

11. Remarks of Barack Obama: "A World That Stands As One," Berlin, Germany (July 24, 2008), read at http://www.barackobama.com/2008/07/24/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_97.php

12. Nir Rosen, "The Death of Iraq," Current History (December 2007), p. 31.

13. WIFR Television, CBS 23, Rockford, Illinois, "Obama Speaks at General Motors in Janesville," February 13, 2008, read at http://www.wifr.com/morningshow/headlines/15618592.html.

14. Obama, "A World That Stands As One."

15. Barack Obama, "A Way Forward in Iraq," Speech to Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Illinois (November 20, 2006), available online at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/061120-a_way_forward _in_iraq/index.html.

16. Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Five Problems With the President’s Plan," Washington Post (January 12, 2007), read at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/11/AR2007011101572_pf.html.
On Fallujah, see Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (New York: Verso, 2005, p. xii; Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New York: New Press, 2006), pp. 27-28; Paul Street, "Vilsacking Iraq," ZNet Magazine (December 22, 2006);

17. Noam Chomsky, "’Good News’: Iraq and Beyond," ZNet (February 16, 20088), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16522; Noam Chomsky, "The Mechanisms and Practices of Indoctrination" (1984), pp.207-208 in Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education, ed. C.P. Otero (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003).

18. For details and sources, see Paul Street, "Largely About Oil: Reflections on Empire, Petroleum, Democracy, and the Occupation of Iraq," Z Magazine (January 2008): 38-42.


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