Last Christmas Eve, a Nigerian terrorist national from Yemen named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to kill himself and 300 other passengers on a commercial airliner traveling from the Netherlands to Detroit. Abdulmutallab’s bungled suicide bombing was likely motivated in part by a desire for revenge over the many Yemeni militants and civilians killed in the U.S. air attacks a week before ("U.S. Kill 63 Civilians, 28 Children in Yemen Air Strikes," Press TV, December 18, 2009).
In response to the Christmas bomber near-attack, Obama recycled George W. Bush’s nationalistic rhetoric about the U.S. being under supposedly mysterious attack from evil outsiders who just hate and assault "us" because…that’s what anti-American terrorists do. Failing to note the role that U.S. policies and actions, and its deadly presence in the Middle East and South Asia, play in provoking such attacks, Obama focused his ire on U.S. intelligence failures that almost allowed the Nigerian to ignite a catastrophe and ordered a significant escalation of the Pentagon’s terror war in Yemen.
Five days later, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a "double agent" member of the Pakistani Taliban, successfully eliminated seven U.S. mercenaries (Blackwater/Xe operatives) and CIA agents in the Afghanistan border town of Khost, including the chief of the CIA’s base (Camp Chapman) there. The U.S. personnel killed were carrying out Predator drone attacks that killed innocent Pakistani civilians, including children.
The Khost attack received a brief reference in Obama’s New Year’s address to the nation which concluded as follows: "Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred and we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country, even as we uphold the values that have always distinguished America among nations….
"As the Christmas Day attack illustrates and as we were reminded this week by the sacrifices of more brave Americans in Afghanistan, including the seven dead men and women of the CIA, the hard work of protecting our nation is never done…. But as we go forward, let us remember this: our adversaries are those who would attack our country, not our fellow Americans. Not each other. Let us never forget what has always carried us through times of trial, including those attacks eight Septembers ago. Instead of giving into fear and cynicism, let’s renew that timeless American spirit of resolve and confidence and optimism. Instead of succumbing to partisanship and division, let’s summon the unity that this moment demands. Let’s work together with a seriousness of purpose to do what must be done to keep this country safe.
"As we began this New Year, I can’t imagine a more fitting resolution to guide us as a people and as a nation. Happy New Year" (Obama, "The Fight Against Al Qaeda," January 2, 2010).
This puddle of presidential speechifying and propaganda contained oceans of military-nationalist nonsense.
"OUR NATION IS AT WAR": Where is the war? In the oil-rich Muslim world where the only military superpower (the U.S.) is engaged in imperial occupations and attacks that have cost hundreds of thousands of Arab, Persian, and Pashtun lives—all primarily civilian. True, U.S. colonial and imperial practices in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have provoked occasional real and attempted attacks on what Obama now also calls "the homeland" (an explicitly imperialist term). Still, Americans have not been dodging IEDs, artillery shells, cluster bombs, or suicide bombers on the way to and from their workplaces, schools, shopping malls, and homes. They have no idea what it would be to experience a crushing foreign occupation like the one the U.S. continues in Iraq (including more thana million dead). Historian Juan Cole notes that the U.S. invasion of that country has "displaced four million (over a million abroad), destroyed entire cities such as Fallujah, set off a Sunni-Shiite civil war, allowed Baghdad to be ethnically cleansed of its Sunnis, practiced systematic and widespread torture before the eyes of the Muslim Middle East and the world." It’s a very one-sided "war" in which "our nation" is engaged.
Who’s fighting and dying on the American side? The broad mass of Americans are not "serving" in Washington’s supposedly noble terror war(s). The domestic U.S rebellion against the Vietnam War convinced the military establishment of the need to avoid placing middle-class soldiers in bloody colonial campaigns. The Pentagon relies on a de facto mercenary force of professional soldiers (along with a giant and underestimated mass of mercenaries hired by such corporate "security" firms as Blackwater—now Xe Services—Dyncorps, and Triple Canopy), who are not drawn from the general citizenry.
Obama’s "nation at war" phrase conflates the U.S. civilian majority with the national military caste and the growing corporate mercenary legions under the rule of our supposed shared "commander-in-chief." Constitutionally speaking, the president is the "commander-in-chief" only of the nation’s armed forces. He bears no such title or authority vis-à-vis the civilian populace.
"NETWORKS OF VIOLENCE AND HATRED": Hello? The Pentagon accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and maintains more than 800 military bases spread across 130 "sovereign" nations. Many of the U.S. empire’s troops in the Middle East and South Asia have been indoctrinated to believe that Muslims and Arabs are less-than-human and to think that they are "avenging 9/11" by undertaking egregious violations of human rights across the region. That’s pretty hateful.
The "seven brave Americans" who died in Khost conducted aerial assaults that butchered defenseless children and other innocents in Pakistan. They were enlisted in Obama’s major "Drone War," which goes far beyond anything Bush attempted. By numerous accounts, the Pentagon’s chilling "drone surge"—currently "hunting humans in the Af-Pak war zone at a record pace" (Nick Turse, "The Drone Surge," ZNet, January 26, 2010)—kills more civilian bystanders than "militants." That’s also pretty hateful and is understood as such by the other side. There’s nothing particularly "brave" about liquidating human beings at such a cold and depersonalized remove, often with mercenary technicians (the CIA’s Pakistan drone campaign is contracted-out to Xe Services) pressing buttons of high-tech murder as if they were playing video games in sheltered, climate-controlled command centers.
"DEFEND OUR COUNTRY" and "THE HARD WORK OF PROTECTING OUR NATION": Presidents Bush and Obama have put Americans in the "homeland" at greater risk by undertaking and sustaining provocative, criminal, and bloody occupations in the Muslim world. As in Iraq, the U.S. has no legitimate legal or moral business invading Afghanistan, threatening Iran, and attacking Pakistanis and Yemenis. It never has. The people on the other ends of our guns know this and can be expected to exact revenge.
"THE VALUES THAT HAVE DISTINGUISHED AMERICA AMONG NATIONS": What are these exactly and how do they square with William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt’s killing of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos resisting the U.S. colonization of their nation; with Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding’s bloody imposition of de facto slavery on Haiti during and after World War I; with Harry Truman’s unnecessary and geopolitically calculated atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; with the U.S. "crucifixion of Southeast Asia" (killing 2-3 millions Indochinese) between 1962 and 1975; with the U.S. murder of more than half a million Iraqi children ("a price worth paying" in the immortal words of Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright); and with the more than one million Iraqis whose lives have been prematurely ended by the criminal occupation of Iraq? Do "our" noble "values" find expression in Obama’s elimination of untold masses of civilian Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others in the name of anti-terrorism, with the remorseless U.S. bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk last spring, with the execution of eight Afghan children by U.S. special forces in the village of Ghazi Khan in Narang district of the eastern province of Kunar last December 30. According to Afghan legislator Haji Farid last December 29, "Every time an American solider gets killed, they bomb an entire village." Veteran U.S. foreign policy critic and chronicler Edward S. Herman notes that, "A steady stream of news reports have spoken of 10, 30, and up to 147 [Afghan] civilians killed in air raids, as usual normalized and treated without indignation in the mainstream media" (Z Magazine, February 2010). As journalist Allan Nairn told Amy Goodman last January, "The U.S. has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill" ("Democracy Now!" January 6, 2010).
How do these "distinguishing values" match up with the following episode from February 2009? That’s when Obama’s Department of Justice threatened the national security of England if that country’s courts did not dismiss Binyam Mohamed’s lawsuit against a company (the Chicago-based Boeing Corporation’s subsidiary Jeppesen Data) that helped the CIA "render" him to the U.S. prison on Guantanamo Bay, where he survived six years of torture and detention without due process. Released to his home country of England in February 2009, Mohamed immediately sought redress in his nation’s legal system. A British High Court ruled that sufficient proof existed to show that he had been subjected to torture and was therefore entitled to obtain further evidence in the possession of the British government on the details of his treatment by the CIA.
A formal police investigation was initiated to examine allegations that British agents collaborated in his torture. Then the British High Court reversed itself under a very particular and remarkable form of pressure from the White House. If the British court released the facts of Mohamed’s torture, the Obama administration told England’s judicial officer, the U.S. could no longer guarantee its willingness to engage in vital intelligence sharing with Britain.
Of course, what previous great global powers have not claimed to be the "exceptional" carriers and symbols of great, benevolent, and noble values? This has been the standard doctrinal claim of "imperial conquerors and occupiers" (Noam Chomsky "Unexceptional Americans" Common Dreams, May 19, 2009).
"LET US ASK THE QUESTIONS THAT NEED TO BE ASKED": Really? Like Bush, Obama refuses to remotely approach a key question that desperately needs to be asked. Why are so many Muslim fighters (including the wealthy son of a leading Nigerian banker like young Abdulmutallab) ready and willing to die in order to kill Americans? Here is the doctrinally unacceptable answer: because the United States has undertaken a longstanding imperial intervention in and assault on their part of the world. This is causation/motive 101, obvious to anyone who has ever enjoyed a good crime-detective novel and who has any reasonable understanding of U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast and South Asia. But it can’t be mentioned. "When it comes to terrorism," the liberal-left lawyer and essayist Glen Greenwald has noted, "discussions of motive have been declared more or less taboo from the start because of the dishonest equation of motive discussions with justification—as though understanding the reasons why X happens is to posit that X is legitimate and justifiable" ("Cause and Effect in the ‘Terror War,’" Salon, December 29, 2009).
"LET US MAKE THE CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE TO PROTECT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE": For real? Obama would never mention the first two policy changes the U.S. could and should make to end the threat posed to Americans by Islamic terrorists: (1) end criminal U.S. occupations and terror wars in the Middle East and South Asia and—imagine—leave those regions to their own people; (2) start to pay massive reparations for the incredible damage "we" have inflicted in those regions.
"But as we go forward," Obama droned, to repeat, "let us remember this: Our adversaries are those who would attack our country, not our fellow Americans." No, that’s complete nonsense for most Americans. Our leading enemies are in fact found at home, not abroad. U.S. military veteran Mark Prysner put it very nicely in a speech to Iraq Veterans Against the War last December 20, 2009. After relating his inability to participate any further in the deeply racist and de-humanizing conduct of U.S. foreign and military policy in the Middle East, Prysner got serious about the real threat to "homeland security" in the United States: "I threw families on to the street in Iraq only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. I mean to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They’re not people whose names we don’t know and whose culture we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5,000 miles away. They are right here at home."
Paul Street is an activist and author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010).