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Obamanable National Narcissism: Hating a War Because it’s a Strategic “Mistake” v. Hating it Because it’s an Imperial Crime*


I recently dove back into my borrowed copy of presidential candidate Barack Obama’s sickening book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York, 2006). Somewhere on this blog I said that I'd be knocking this thing off in an hour or two.  No such luck.

It’s been a tough slog through this ponderous monographic monument to centrist “pragmatic” wisdom and related personal political ambition.  Reading this thing is like trying to wrestle a greased pig on steroids. Obama’s Audacity is a very slippery book for a very obvious reason: it is dedicated to convincing “progressives” that the Overnight BaRockstar is one of them (his chapter on religion especially makes repeated claims of "progressive" fealty to the noble cause of "social and economic justice") while simultaneously reassuring the dominant policy and political class that he will never act to challenge existing domestic and imperial hierarchies. 

I’m up to Obama's most nauseating chapter, titled “The World Beyond Our Borders,” which apparently received critical input from his good friend the imperial humanitarian Harvard professor and leading Chomsky critic (see a nice hatchet job here) Samantha Power (she is effusively thanked in the acknowledgements).  At one point in this chapter, Obama, who fancies himself something of a historian, holds forth as follows about the Vietnam War – an earlier racist, imperial and illegal U.S. invasion that killed at least 2 million Indochinese (the proportional American equivalent would have run into the tens of millions):

“The disastrous consequences of that conflict – for our credibility and prestige abroad, for our armed forces (which would take a generation to recover), and most of all for those who fought – have been amply documented.  But perhaps the biggest casualty of that war was the bond of trust between the American people and their government – and between American themselves. As a consequence of a more aggressive press corps and the images of body bags flooding into the living rooms, Americans began to realize that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing – and didn’t always tell the truth.  Increasingly, many on the left voiced opposition not only to the Vietnam War but also [imagine!, P.S.] to the broader aims of American foreign policy.  In their view, President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the CIA, the ‘military industrial complex,’ and international institutions like the World Bank were all manifestations of American arrogance, jingoism, racism, capitalism and imperialism. Those on the right responded in kind, laying responsibility for the loss of Vietnam but also for the decline America’s standing in the world squarely omn the ‘blame America’ first crowd – the protestors, the hippies, Jane Fonda, the Ivy League intellectuals and liberal media… (Obama, Audacity, pp. 287-288)

Oh the sickening stench of National Narcissism, and here (and elsewhere throughout Audacity) so wonderfully articulated by a sudden liberal savior that some deluded “progressives” are embracing as "the best and the brightest” of the early 21st century!

The “biggest casualty” of the war on Vietnam was suffered by…the PEOPLE OF VIETNAM.  The terrible U.S. GI  body count (58,000 during the war and more through suicide since) pales before the astonishing damage done to Indochinese villages, cities, infrastructure, ecology, agriculture – not to mention the two million people killed in more direct fashion.  The number of South Vietnamese civilians killed just in the CIA’s Operation Phoenix assassination program was equivalent to 45 percent of the U.S. body count in Vietnam. 

As for the supposed tragedy of the frayed “bond of trust between the American people and their government,” there are many of us who think that the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” is a very healthy thing. Its inoculation power has recently received a wonderful booster shot with massive popular repudiation of the criminal action against Iraq. It’s wonderful that the American people subject “their” foreign policy establishment to skeptical, even “distrustful” scrutiny and turned against an in-fact racist, imperialist, and illegal war in which the children of “their” selected power “elite” were deemed too precious and privileged to “serve.” It’s fantastic that some of us understood the class basis of the imperialism that Obama sees as the mythological creation of left “caricature” (pp. 288). 

Obama cannot acknowledge that the previous supposed “bond of trust” (whose dissolution he mourns) between the people and “their” government was based largely on Establishment lies calculated to “scare the Hell of the American people” with exaggerated Soviet and international “Communist” threats.  The deceptions were meant to induce the U.S. populace to cower under the permanent authoritarian umbrella of the National Security State and the wise and benevolent managers of Empire and Inequality, Inc. at home and abroad.

Does Obama really think the sovereign nation of Vietnam was America’s to “lose” in the first place? And does he wish (as he should) to include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom the technically black Obama loves to quote and cite) among those “on the left” who saw the Vietnam War as an expression of America’s broader imperialism and racism and of its related captivity to what Dwight Eisenhower identified as the “military industrial complex?”

King came to precisely those radical conclusions and went beyond them by tying it all to problems of race and class rule within the imperial homeland. As one see from reading his essential speeches and writings after 1966, the great civil rights leader saw social inequalities at home and criminal U.S. violence abroad as part of what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” (1) racism; (2) poverty/economic exploitation/capitalism; (3) militarism/imperialism.

The people of Iraq can be forgiven if they don’t share Obama’s sense that it was a good thing for the American armed forces to “recover” after Vietnam. The world has plenty to fear in the the specter of an Obamanation.  

After reflecting on the terrible damage that the Vietnam War did to AMERICANS and adding a few lines about his curious respect for Ronald Reagan (p. 289), Obama’s "Audacity" launches into an elegant, Harvard-certified critique of Bush II’s war on iraq  His discourse is full of standard “realist” foreign policy rhetoric along lines such as these: “I am convinced that it will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world” since “nobody benefits more that we do from the observance of international ‘rules of the road'" (p. 309). 

In the 20 or so pages that he dedicates to the criminal occupation of Iraq, Obama makes it clear that he see Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) as a terrible mistake – a “dumb” strategic error of historic proportions.  What he can’t say or admit and perhaps doesn’t believe is that the invasion of Iraq was and remains a great moral and spiritual transgression – a loathesome war crime.

This is a telling silence. There were those who came to oppose the Vietnam War primarily because America’s mass-murderous “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) seemed finally not to be working for the goal of advancing U.S imperial power and there were those who opposed it because it was morally wrong (whether it was “working” or not).  The same division exists in regard to OIF. Obama is on the morally empty, “pragmatic” side of that ethical chasm, consistent with the counsel of his special foreign policy friend Samantha Power, who joined Morton Abramowtiz to say the following in an April 2006 opinion-editorial telling the Democrats to “Get Loud, Get Angry!” over the Iraq War: “In recent months, the Democrats have taken steps to push for accountability.  But few have attracted media attention and all have slammed the Bush administration’s tactical blunders – intelligence failures, contract corruption, and torture – rather than declaring Iraq and enormous strategic blunder in the ear on terror.  Few have called the war what most Americans now understand it to have been: a mistake” (Samantha Power and Morton Abramowtiz, “Democrats: Get Loud, Get Angry!,” Los Angeles Times, 10 April, 2006)

Especially after the mid-term revulsion “wave,” we will be hearing plenty of Democrats (and no tiny number of Republicans) easily admitting that the latest Iraq War was and is a horrible “strategic mistake.”  Big deal! Those of us who are not enthralled by conventional bipartisan imperial wisdom and the elite corporate-neoliberal consensus need to remind ourselves and our fellow Americans that the occupation of Iraq is – like the Vietnam War – a great imperial crime that is intimately related to savage domestic hierarchies that both of the in-power business parties are sworn to defend. 

* The above is excerpted from The Empire and Inequality Report, Volume I, no. 2.  Related criticisms of the junior centrist Senator from Illiinois (and the authoritarian and imperial national political and policy process he is climbing into) can be found in the first issue of the same publication. Write Paul Street at [email protected] to receive future copies of the report.

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