Cornell West, on HBO’s Real Time, reiterated his criticism that President Obama is a “war criminal” for killing innocent people through drone strikes. He went on to make a simple, but rarely heard observation, that if you “have an empire, you’re going to have war crimes.”
Critical voices like his are an exception in the mainstream. For the most part, establishment liberals have either been silent or have cheered as Obama has expanded the national security state. West chastises these liberals as “morally bankrupt” for giving Obama a pass for the same problematic policies that Bush was roundly criticized for.
The mainstream reception of the NSA leaks is only the most recent illustrations of this trend. Rather than criticize the gross abuse of power by government, a smear campaign was orchestrated first against whistleblower Snowden and then journalist Glenn Greenwald.
From MSNBC’s Mika Brezeznski using, as Greenwald states “White House talking points” to downplay the significance of the leaks, to NBC’s David Gregory asking why Greenwald shouldn’t be charged as a criminal, the liberal establishment media and their “experts” have faithfully defended the White House.
Instead of “watchdog of the government,” the corporate media acted as attack dogs for the government. One wonders what fate journalists Woodword and Bernstein might have suffered if they broke the Watergate scandal today.
The public, however, has not bought liberal apologia and have responded differently to the ongoing revelations. Fully 55% of Americans believe that Snowden is a whistle blower rather than a “traitor,” and in a dramatic reversal far greater numbers of the public believe that the government has gone too far in violating civil liberties.
The machinery of liberal imperialism and the rhetorical shift orchestrated by the Obama administration is beginning to unravel.
Towards the end of Bush’s second term the credibility of the US had been badly damaged on the world stage. Sections of the political elite had begun to strategize about how to rehabilitate empire’s image.
In 2007, a leadership group headed by Madeleine Albright produced a document titled “Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World.” The document states that to defeat “violent extremists,” military force was necessary but not sufficient, and that the US needed to forge “diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives.” In short, both “hard” and “soft” power was needed.
It rejected the Bush-era “clash of civilizations” framework and advised the next president to talk about improving relations with Muslim-majority countries in his or her inaugural speech and reaffirm the US’s “commitment to prohibit all forms of torture.”
Obama did exactly that. From his inaugural speech to the speech in Cairo he echoed these themes emphasizing the positive contributions of Muslims to human history. His administration dropped the term “Global War on Terror” and replaced it with the innocuous “Overseas Contingency Operations,” all the while critiquing torture and upholding liberal human rights principles.
Yet liberal rhetoric by itself was not enough to rehabilitate empire. The defeat in Iraq, and the Afghan quagmire, necessitated a shift in imperial thinking from conventional warfare to largely invisible mechanisms of coercion.
Analyzing the 2012 Defense Planning Guidance document in my book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, I argued that the era of large scale warfare was over, instead “the new phase of Obama’s imperial posture involves reestablishing US hegemony. . .through multilateral alliances and the use of air strikes, drone attacks, and counterterrorism and special operations forces as well as cyber warfare.”
The Empire’s New Clothes, Same As the Old Clothes
Obama launched what has been called a “smarter” war on terror, using the tools developed by the Bush administration; a shift that has largely been kept from the public. From the establishment of Wikileaks on, we have entered a period where whistleblowers and investigative journalists are rendering the emperor’s clothes visible.
The prison at Guantanamo bay became a symbol of Bush’s excesses, and yet despite promises to the contrary it remains open. Obama issued an executive order to close down the notorious CIA “black sites,” where torture was rampant. Journalist Anand Gopal, however, revealed that the US continues to maintain several secret prisons in Afghanistan where torture continues. Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars unearthed another such prison in Somalia.
It is hard to say how many more there are in other countries. But these revelations shed light on why the Obama administration has not prosecuted a single Bush administration official for torture. In fact, it has granted immunity to these officials.
When Bush indefinitely detained prisoners stripping them of their habeas corpus rights he was rightly denounced by liberals. Yet when Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that not only institutionalized this process but also expanded its use to US citizens there was little criticism from establishment liberals.
Rumsfeld and Cheney created a top secret killing machine out of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which travelled around the world assassinating people at will without Congressional oversight or public discussion. Obama embraced and systematized this.
As Scahill observes, the Obama administration inherited from Bush a set of covert and clandestine programs marked by infighting between various agencies, particularly the CIA and JSOC. Obama would bring in Bush-era officials to create a seamless, integrated, and expanded global assassination program.
Obama has dramatically escalated drone strikes around the world; heinously, he also ordered the assassination of US citizens. The US-born radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki was executed without due process in Yemen; a few weeks later his teenage son was also killed in a “signature” strike.
The netwar has also been relentless. When the Bush administration announced the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program of intrusive data gathering and mining, it was rightly denounced as big brother. As the ongoing NSA leaks show, under Obama a program of even greater width and depth is now a reality.
The Obama administration has escalated cyberwarfare using militarized computer viruses to attack computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Journalist Nick Turse notes that while these efforts were begun under Bush, “President Obama. . .became the first American commander-in-chief to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s infrastructure.”[i]
This reconfiguration of empire has been largely kept under wraps in order to maintain Obama’s liberal posture. It is therefore not surprising that he has prosecuted whistleblowers at a rate higher than all previous US presidents combined.
Additionally, as McClatchy newspapers revealed, federal employees will be asked to spy on each other and tattle when they identify a potential leaker. Known as the “Insider Threat” program, this will apply not only to security establishment workers but also those in the Department of Agriculture, EPA, Social Security Administration and other agencies.
For Obama secrecy is vital since his entire presidency has rested on saying one thing and doing another; on liberal rhetoric and imperial actions. At root, his foreign policy still relies on the narrative of “keeping Americans safe” from the menacing “Islamic terrorist threat.”
In contrast to the visibly bigoted language of the right, the Obama era saw a shift to a more subtle anti-Muslim vocabulary. As Arun Kundnani, Hamid Dabashi and others have shown, liberal racism is central to empire. This analysis, however, has been critiqued.
Matt Duss, one of the authors of the important Fear Inc. study that exposed the machinations of the Islamophobia industry, in an otherwise sympathetic review of my book, takes issue with my definition of liberal Islamophobia.
Duss argues that the “problem with defining Islamophobia as broadly as Kumar does is that it threatens to divest the term of meaning.” I disagree. If we don’t explain the various forms and shapes that anti-Muslim prejudice takes, and offer a nuanced and comprehensive analysis, we run the risk of seeing it as only a rightwing phenomenon. Thus, while Fear Inc. remains a useful guide to rightwing Islamophobia, it unfortunately stops short of critiquing liberals and Democrats.
Meredith Tax similarly argues that my definition is too broad. Tax, however, is more interested in convincing liberals that the very term “Islamophobia” is so “confusing” that it is best rejected because it echoes the views of Islamists. This is a deeply problematic proposition yet one that we might expect from Tax and her group Center for Secular Space, which, as Saadia Toor shows, offers a liberal cover for imperialism.
Tax takes issue with my Nation article, which demonstrates how both political parties have demonized Muslims. She states that my definition of liberal Islamophobia is so broad that it can be used to “cover every imaginable form of US interaction with Muslims.” Tax needs to work on her imagination and try to expand it beyond the twin parties of empire.
As the great historian Richard Hofstradter teachers us The American Political Tradition there are very few substantive differences between the main political parties. While they “differ, sometimes bitterly, over current issues. . .they also share a general framework of ideas.”[ii] This “range of ideas. . .is limited by the climate of opinion that sustains their culture.”[iii]
We are part of creating this “climate of opinion.” When Woodward and Bernstein broke Watergate they did so after a period of massive social upheaval where the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and anti-war movements had decisively shifted the culture of American politics to the left.
Frank Church, who headed a committee to study government excesses, warned of the dangers of NSA surveillance stating that it could “make tyranny total in America.” On the FBI’s COINTELPRO used to spy on 1960s activists including the pacifist Martin Luther King, the Church report stated that the “techniques used [are] intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity.” The result was a curtailed of government spying.
Today, it is our responsibility to shift the culture in the US to bring an end not only to surveillance but also empire and its national security state.
Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (2012). An earlier version of this article was published by al Jazeera.