“Re-Missioning” and Advance Betrayal: Notes on Iraq, “Expectation Management,” and the Imperial Transition



Recently The New York Times reported an alleged evolution in President-Elect Obama’s position on the invasion of Iraq.  Having run for the president partly on a vow to “end the war” in Iraq, Obama, Times reporter Thom Shanker wrote, “is making clearer than ever that tens of thousands of American troops will be left behind in Iraq, even if he can make good on his campaign promise to pull all combat troops out within sixteen months.”  As Shanker notes, Obama’s “withdrawal” could well “see the number of American [troops remaining  in Iraq] hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 – and some [Pentagon planners] say as high as 70,000 – for a substantial time even beyond 2011”


 Obama’s claim to end the invasion without ending it may, some “defense” authorities report, include “re-labeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be ‘re-missioned,’ their efforts redefined as training and support for Iraqis” (NYT, December 4, 2008, A31).


Orwell, Kafka, and Vonnegut would be impressed.


The Times gave an interesting title to Shanker’s report: “Campaign Promise on Ending the War in Iraq Now Muted By Reality.”  Here is a useful translation for the Times’ meaning of “reality”: whatever the Pentagon and incoming administration say about life and policy, the serious questioning of which from beyond centrist frameworks is left to dangerous and dysfunctional “ideologues.”




The Times was wrong to suggest a significant change in Obama’s concept of “reality” in regard to Iraq. Those willing to look seriously beneath the “antiwar” campaign imagery his marketers crafted for liberal and progressive voters can easily determine that there is no fundamental discontinuity.  Obama voted to fund the illegal occupation without conditions in 2005 and 2006. He worked to support pro-war over antiwar Democrats in the 2006 congressional primaries. He distanced himself from U.S. Congressman Jack Murtha’s (D-PA) early and courageous call for withdrawal from Iraq in 2005.  He lectured progressives on the alleged need to not be seen as “working against the president” on Iraq (after the Democrats’ 2006 congressional victories) and on how Democrats shouldn’t "play chicken with the troops" (a preposterous conservative smear) by calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. He voted against a troop withdrawal proposal by Senators John Kerry and Russ Feingold in June 2006, arguing that setting a firm date for retreat would "hamstring" diplomats and military commanders. .


In the fall of 2006, Obama told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that "The American people have been extraordinarily resolved [in support of the Iraq occupation]…They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah." This was a remarkable comment in light of the two massive assaults (notorious across the Middle East and Muslim world) the Pentagon launched (indiscriminately slaughtering civilians in large numbers) on that Iraqi city in April and November of 2004.


Obama’s heralded "antiwar speech" of October 2002 (given when he was still a state senator) opposed the planned invasion of Iraq on pragmatic, not principled grounds.  It criticized the imminent invasion as a strategic mistake (a "dumb war"), neglecting to mention its criminal and immoral nature, its petro-imperial motivations, and the large number of Iraqis it would kill and maim. 


Consistent with those omissions, Obama has never criticized the ethics or legality of Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.).  He has always refused to significantly note Iraqi casualties (including more than 1 million civilian dead) and he denies the broader Holocaust the U.S, has imposed on Iraq.   He told CNN’s Candy Crowely last July that the United States should not apologize to anyone for any of its foreign policies under Bush and he has repeatedly claimed that the U.S. invaded the Iraq with "the best of intentions" (democracy- and freedom-promotion).  He even told Wisconsin autoworkers last February that that the U.S. must "stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together."


Obama’s 2002 "antiwar speech" came down from his Web site in 2003 because he decided to run for the U.S. Senate that year.  He was nowhere to be seen around downtown Chicago when two nights of massive demonstrations took place there against Bush’s invasion in March of 2003. And during the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he made the Keynote Address that made him an overnight celebrity (a "BaRockstar"), Obama told the New York Times that he might have voted (like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards) to authorize Bush to invade Iraq if he had been in the U.S Senate and had access to the same "intelligence" as other U.S. Senators in the fall of 2002.


Obama’s spokespersons have been consistently mushy and deceptive about his Iraq withdrawal plans, making it clear to serious investigators that Obama will continue the occupation indefinitely.  He told FOX News thug Bill O’Reilly this summer that "the Surge" had "succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations" and he has refused to sign on to legislation seeking to ban private "security" contractors like Blackwater from Iraq and Afghanistan.


A remarkable record, indeed, for someone who, in Times reporter David Sanger’s words, excited "the left wing of his party" with "vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq"(NYT, November 22, 2008).




Noting that President Bush had been swamped by cries of "O-ba-ma" during a state visit to Africa, “Public” Broadcasting System talk show host Charlie Rose asked then Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power last February if she was concerned about the "sky-high expectations" much of the world seemed to have for peaceful change under an Obama presidency. There was "some danger" in popular hopes, Rose worried.


"Right," Power said, noting that Obama is "acutely aware of this." And "that," Power said, "is why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally." (The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, February 21, 2008: www.charlierose.com/shows/2008/02/21/2/a-conversation-with-samantha-power)


Earlier in the interview Power told Rose that a president Obama would not be bound by mere “campaign rhetoric” when it came to Iraq once he entered the White House.  Upon the assumption of power, Power knew, Obama would take much of his cure from those all-knowing “commanders on the ground.”


Behind Power’s disturbing application of elitist and technocratic language to the managerial coordination of domestic and global hopes and dreams there lurked an obvious (for those willing to detect it) admission: Obama was as attached to the U.S. imperial project as Bush and this could dangerously disappoint expectant masses at home and abroad in the event of an Obama ascendancy.  Unenlightened humanity’s naïve faith in "change we can believe in" would have to be downwardly "calibrated" as we made an imperial transition into the post-Bush era of U.S. global rule.


Power was later removed from the Obama team because of her excessive public candor.




Carried away with the false notion of Obama as “an antiwar candidate,” many left and liberal Americans should have paid closer attention to Obama’s longstanding centrist and imperial commitments and world view.  Obama has said as much himself, admonishing his more progressive supporters for projecting excessively leftward expectations on to his record and trajectory.


Still, it is hard not to agree with Shanker that “supporters who keyed [Obama’s] language of ending the war might be forgiven if they thought that would mean bringing home all the troops.” Among other things, the Obama campaign has been a brilliant sales operation.  It’s not for nothing that Obama was hailed as “Marketer of the Year” by the leading advertising and public relations trade journal Advertising Age (“Obama Wins Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year," Advertising Age [October 17, 2008], read at http://adage.com/print?article_id=131810 ).



A critical part of “Brand Obama’s” marketing genius has included telling a diverse and often contradictory amalgam of groups and interests that he is one of them.  The liberal and progressive community was smartly targeted for seduction by Obama’s skilled and remarkably well-funded – largely by the privileged and corporate Few – small donors accounted for just a quarter of his record-setting campaign finance war chest (the same percentage as George W. Bush in 2004!) – image makers.  And a critical hook in that powerful bit of electoral “micro-targeting” was of course the claim that Obama would honor majority U.S., Iraqi, and world opinion by bringing a rapid end to the Iraq War. 


Eager to put a “new,” hopeful, and cooptive face on the American System after the long national and global Cheney-Bush nightmare, dominant U.S. media  played along pricelessly with the fake-progressive sales job.  It eagerly and powerfully transmitted the liberal-left and related antiwar Obama illusions.




Now, nearly a year after I watched hundreds of excited liberal and progressive voters flood the Democratic presidential Caucus for Obama at Iowa City High School, the New York Times’ relatively elite readership is told candidly that Obama and his militantly corporate-imperial cabinet picks epitomize what former Clinton administration official and Kissinger Associates Managing Director David J. Rothkopf calls “the violin model: Hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right” (NYT, November 22, 2008, A1).   Wall Street Journal editorial board member Matthew Kaminski  notes that “the Obama camp says the future president, who won running from the left, intends to govern from the center” (WSJ, December  6/7, 2008, A8). The Washington Post’s Web site links to a Morgan Stanley research report issued the day after Obama’s election. “As we understand it,” the report said, “Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend…In addition, we believe, based on discussions with industry sources, that Obama has agreed not to cut the defense budget at least until the first 18 months of his term as the national security situation becomes better understood…The Democrats,” Morgan Stanley’s researchers note, “are sensitive about appearing weak on defense, and we don’t expect strong cuts” (see www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/business/governmentinc/documents/ObamaDefense.pdf)


Reading that report the other day, I thought back to a brief conversation I had with a progressive young woman in City High right after Obama scored his historic triumph in Iowa. Like me, she had caucused for the semi-progressive and remarkably pro-labor John Edwards candidacy. “But he [Obama] can’t win,” she said when I asked her what she thought about the Obamaist tsunami that had just unfolded before our eyes.  “Sure he can,” I said. “The problem is what’s going to get lost along the way.  He’s probably going to the White House but he’s going to do in it in a way that might not strike us as all that much of a ‘democratic’ victory.”


Eleven months later as Obama continues to win praise and publicity from the likes of William Kristol and Rupert Murdoch, I am reminded also of the once-left Christopher Hitchens’ description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”  I am further struck by the relevance of Edward S. Herman’s observation last year that the Democrats’ “populist and peace-stressing promises and gestures…are [always] betrayed instantly on the assumption of power” (Edward S. Herman, “Democratic Betrayal,” Z Magazine, January 2007). In Obama’s case, the predictable betrayal seems well underway even before the formal taking of office. 


Paul Street’s latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987)Paul can be reached at [email protected]

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