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From Daley Plaza to Syria: Obama’s Forgotten, Fading Imperial Promise


Some liberals and progressives who opposed Barack Obama’s attempted attack on Syria seemed taken aback and surprised at the president’s readiness to make brazenly illegal, unilateral war on another sovereign nation. I’m glad they helped block the bombing of Syria, but I find surprise at Obama’s imperial militarism distressing. That militarism has been on rich display from the beginning of his presidency, generating countless victims from Somalia and Yemen to Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan among other locations.

 

The Invasion of Iraq as a Mistake, Not a Crime 

But then, Obama’s imperial militarism was evident well before he took up residence in the White House. Obama was never anything remotely like the “antiwar” politician many liberal and progressive Democrats fantasized about during the long national Cheney-Bush 43 nightmare. Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s October 2002 speech against George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq in Chicago’s Daley Plaza – an oration that was subsequently lodged into the screen doors of Iowa City progressives on the eve of the 2008 Iowa Democratic Party presidential Caucus – is a case in point. It was much less anti-war than many imagined. “I am not opposed to all wars,” Obama said early in his speech, “I’m opposed to dumb wars.”[1] 

Calling Bush’s imminent war “dumb” but not criminal or immoral, Obama deleted the petro-imperial ambitions behind the Iraq invasion being planned in Washington. He said nothing about racist nature of the Bush administration’s determination to preposterously link Iraq to the jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001 and to al Qaeda. Contrary to his presidential campaign’s later effort to brand him as a friend of the antiwar movement, his 2002 speech spoke against the planned invasion in much the same terms as George Bush Senior’s former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and much of the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. It argued that invading Iraq would be a foreign policy mistake – something that would not work for U.S. global power. It did not mention that the war and occupation being worked up by the White House and Pentagon would be a brazenly illegal and imperial transgression certain to kill many innocent Iraqis.  The reasons Obama gave not to invade Iraq – economic cost, uncertain outcomes, risks of regional destabilization, etc. (but not immorality, criminality, and the likelihood that many Iraqis would die) – were widely voiced concerns on the part of top conservative imperial thinkers.

 

 “He Had Bigger Plans” 

Even with these qualifications in place, Obama began “muting” his “antiwar” voice well before election to the U.S. Senate. In 2003, the year Iraq was invaded, Obama removed his Daley Plaza speech from his Web site. And while Obama may have spoken at a relatively small and elite antiwar rally in the fall of 2002 (I personally witnessed heads of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation sitting in folding chairs and sipping wine during Obama’s Daley Plaza speech), he was nowhere to be found during the great mass anti Iraq War marches (in which I participated) that took place in downtown Chicago on the nights of March 19 and March 20, 2003. According to Carl Davidson, a former leading anti-Vietnam War activist who helped organize the Daley Plaza speech, Obama began stepping back from his “antiwar” positions after the actual invasion of Iraq: “He turned…now we had to set aside whether it was right or wrong to invade, now we had to find the ‘smart’ path to victory, not Bush’s ‘dumb’ path….He wasn’t listening to us much anymore, but to folks much higher up in the DLC orbit. He had bigger plans.”[2]

 

“Never Go to War without Enough Troops to Win” 

Consistent with those “bigger plans,” Obama’s instantly heralded 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address – the speech that launched him into national and global celebrity – discussed the terrible costs of the illegal Iraq occupation purely in terms of “the more than nine hundred [U.S] men and women – sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors – who won’t be returning to their hometowns.”[3] In the part of “The Speech” that came closest to directly criticizing the Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administrated had “fudge[d] the numbers” and "shad[ed] the truth" about why "our young men and women” were “sent into harm's way." He added that the U.S. must “care for [soldiers’] families while they’re gone, tend to the soldiers upon their return, and never go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world."[4] 

What, Leftists and others were left to wonder, about the considerably larger quantity (well into the tens of thousands) of Iraqis who had been killed and maimed and who lost their homes and incomes and more as a result of the U.S. invasion by the summer of 2004? What about the massive harm U.S. forces were ordered to inflict on Iraqis, considerably greater than the damage they experienced? 

It was hardly a "war," moreover, when the most powerful military state in history attacked and occupied a weak nation it had already devastated over decades of military assault and deadly "economic sanctions." At the same time, “securing the peace" was a morally impoverished and nationally arrogant for Obama to describe the real White House objective in Iraq by the summer of 2004 – to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the outraged Iraqi populace that understandably resented a brazenly imperial invasion it saw (with good reason) as driven by the United States’ desire to deepen its control of Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil.[5] 

“Shade the truth" didn’t come close to doing justice to the high-state deception – the savage, sinister, and sophisticated deception – that that the Bush administration used to cover its imperial ambitions in Iraq.[6] 

Obama’s comment about never “going to war” without the resources to “win” and keep global “respect” evaded the question of the invasion’s unjust nature. What, after all, was the leading problem with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union? Was it that he we went in without the capacity to “win” and thereby lost global esteem or that he launched a monumentally criminal, racist and mass-murderous war of imperial aggression that killed millions of Russians, Germans and other Eastern and Central Europeans? 

Obama’s 2004 Keynote Address was of course consistent with the John Forbes “Reporting for Duty” Kerry presidential campaign, which silenced antiwar voices on the Democratic convention floor and ran on the notion that its standard-bearer would be a more competent and effective administrator of the Iraq occupation than George W. Bush. Kerry was promising to conduct the criminal policy in a more efficient way.[7]

 

“The Hope of Slaves” 

Obama’s Keynote oration hit an especially noxious note when he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of "hope:"

 

“I'm not talking about blind optimism here…I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker's son [John Edwards] who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too…In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.”[8]

 

The “young naval lieutenant line" was a reference to the Democratic presidential candidate Kerry's participation in a previous imperialist adventure, one that took millions of Vietnamese lives. 

It took no small chutzpah for Obama to lump African-American slaves' struggles and spirituality with the imperial and racist U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. Perhaps "God" (the officially highly religious Obama's Keynote Address made repeated references to "God" and "the Creator") gave Nazi executioners and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for “better days ahead.” 

It was not clear who or what told Obama that the Mekong Delta was America’s territory to "patrol” – the same arrogant, nationalist and racist sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own slaves, steal land from Mexico and Native Americans and which allowed the George W. Bush administration to seize Iraq.

 

“The Difference is Who’s In a Position to Execute?” 

Obama’s most revealing Iraq war comments during the 2004 Democratic Party convention did not occur during his famous address. One day before he gave his historic speech, Obama told the New York Times that he did not know how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution had he been serving in the United States Senate at the time of the vote. “In a recent interview,” the Times reported, Obama “declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.' But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. 'What would I have done? I don’t know.’ What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made'" [9] 

Obama said something just as telling during the convention to Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Zeleny and David Mendell. “There’s not that much difference between my position [on Iraq] and George Bush’s position at this stage,” he told the journalists “The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute” (emphasis added).  Zeleny and Mendell added that Obama “now believes U.S. forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation – a position not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration.”[10]

 

“They Have Seen Their Sons and Daughters Killed in the Streets of Fallujah” 

Two years and four months later, poised to announce his bid for the presidency, Obama gave a coldly imperial speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. At one terrible and telling point in that fall 2006 address, he said the following in support of his claim that U.S. citizens support “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah [emphasis added].”[11] 

That was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for colossal U.S. war atrocity. American crimes there 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. Thanks to the U.S. deployment of chemical weapons and “depleted” radioactive ordnance there, Fallujah has been plagued ever since by epidemics of leukemia, cancer, and birth defects. 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 for Obama to have chosen to highlight American sacrifice and “resolve” in the imperialist occupation of Iraq.[12]

 

“To Hold Together the Country” 

Another disturbing moment in Obama’s CCGA speech came in its twenty-fourth paragraph, where he said that a “timetable” for “phased withdrawal” of U.S. troops would “send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the U.S. is not going to hold together the country indefinitely [emphasis added] – that it will it be up to them to form a viable government that can effectively run and secure Iraq.” 

This was a remarkable statement from an ostensibly “antiwar” Senator from a military superpower that had just spent nearly four years deliberately tearing apart the society and public capacities of what was an already desperately poor and devastated (thanks in preponderant measure to U.S. policy actions since at least the First Persian Gulf War) nation.[13] 

In a similar, guilt-dissociating vein, the criminal U.S. assault was missing from Obama’s claim to the CCGA that “Iraq is descending into chaos based on ethnic divisions that were around long before American troops arrived.” Beyond its belated dating of Iraq’s predictable (and predicted) collapse into civil war, this formulation neglected the openly imperial U.S. assault’s role in smashing the public institutions that had restricted internal Iraq “chaos.” It naturally deleted the more specific role of the invaders in actively setting Iraqis against each other along ethnic lines.[14] 

Also problematic from an antiwar perspective was Obama’s praise of U.S. occupation soldiers for “performing their duty with bravery, with brilliance, and without question” (emphasis added). As an antiwar activist at the time, I had a difficult time determining which aspect of this comment was more disturbing: Obama’s blindness (intentional or not) to the important and welcome fact that many troops did in fact question the occupation or his upholding of the unquestioning execution of criminal military orders as a good thing.[15]  

 

“Americans May Be Tempted to Turn Inward” 

“After thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent,” Obama told the CCGA, “many Americans may be tempted to turn inward and cede our leadership in world affairs. But this,” the senator stated, “is a mistake we must not make. America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, and the world cannot meet them without

America.”[16] It was the not the last time Obama would weigh in on the United States supposed “exceptional” right a

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