The Audacity of Imperial Airbrushing: Barack Obama’s Whitewashed History of U.S. Foreign Policy and Why it Matters



Under the rules of “mainstream” political discourse in the United States, crimes are committed by evil others, never by noble “America.”  Bad things are done by “them,” but not by “us.”  “They” often have malevolent intent but “we” are fundamentally good, driven by the highest and most noble objectives: peace, democracy, and liberty. 


From the end of World War Two through the present, the U.S. Empire has caused “the extinction and suffering of countless human beings. The United States,” John Pilger notes, “attempted to overthrow fifty governments, many of them democracies, and to crush thirty popular movements fighting tyrannical regimes.  In the process, twenty-five countries were bombed, causing the loss of several million lives and the despair of millions more” (John Pilger, Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire [New York: Nation Books, 2007], pp. 4-5]. 


The leading imperial crimes include a massive U.S. assault on the peasant nation of Vietnam – an epic attack that killed 3 million Indochinese – and a continuing illegal invasion of oil-rich Mesopotamia.  The latter attack has led to the premature death of 1.2 million Iraqis.  .


But in the U.S, and indeed across much of the West, the record of this ongoing criminality is airbrushed out from official history and the mass culture.  It is tossed down George Orwell’s “memory hole,” consistent with Big Brother’s dictum in Nineteen Eighty Four: “Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.”  As Harold Pinter noted in his biting acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, dominant Western cultural authorities behave as if “it never happened.” When it comes to America’s saga of monumental transgression against civilized norms and international law, “nothing ever happened.  Even while it was happening,” Pinter added, “it never happened.  It didn’t matter.  It was of no interest” (quoted in Pilger, Freedom Next Time, p. 4).


Dominant U.S.-led Western cultural codes mandate that the only victims worthy of acknowledgement and compassion are those assaulted by officially designated enemies. The larger number victimized by us and our clients and allies (e.g., the Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation and apartheid) do not merit consideration, sympathy, or even acknowledgement.  They didn’t happen.   They don’t exist.


Beyond the question of historical accuracy, the problem here is that powerful nations who deny the occurrence of past transgressions are likely to commit new ones.





Which brings us to the avowed “American exceptionalist” [1] Barack Obama, who enjoys support from a large number of so-called left-liberal voters who want very badly to believe that he is a “progressive” opponent of American war, imperialism and militarism.  As he has shown in his comments denouncing Reverend Jeremiah Wright and praising the military “service” of John McCain, Obama is more than ready to wipe “magical” America’s historical slate clean when it comes to imperial crimes. Obama denounces Wright because the good Reverend dares to acknowledge and denounce the bloody and dangerous – for states that practice terrorism abroad must expect to face terrorism there and at home – and living American  history of imperial atrocity, illegality, and arrogance. McCain is lauded as “American war hero” despite the fact that he was an eager participant in a massive imperial assault on the men, women, and children of a poor peasant nation posed no danger to the people of America.


Speaking in a high school gymnasium in Greensburg, Pa. last April, Obama said he wanted to return America to the more “traditional” foreign policy of such past presidents as “George Bush’s father, or John F. Kennedy,” and “in some respects, Ronald Reagan.” He spoke in flattering and favorable terms of the way George H.W. Bush handled the supposedly virtuous first Persian Gulf War. The Associated Press article reporting this comment was titled “Obama Align Foreign Policy With GOP” – a rebuke to left-liberal writers who argue that the centrist Obama stands to the recognizably progressive side of Hillary Clinton at least on foreign policy. 


Nobody in the mainstream commentariat acted on (or likely even remotely felt ) the urge to point out that Bush I’s  assault on Iraq involved heinous Superpower  butchery, including the bombing and bulldozing to death of thousands of surrendered Iraqi soldiers and the decision to let Saddam Hussein slaughter Kurds and Shiites the U.S. had initially encouraged to rebel. Iraq is still dealing with epidemic cancers caused by American deployment of depleted uranium in the first one-sided Iraq “war,” described by many participants as a one-sided “turkey shoot.”  


As Obama knows, such crimes never happened.  They are of no interest.





Obama’s eagerness to whitewash the dark record of U.S. foreign policy is hardly just a 2008 thing.  Take a look at the following passage from his instantly famous Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention (the one that catapulted him to overnight celebrity), where he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of "hope:"


“I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. 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 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.”


The “young naval lieutenant line" was a reference to John F. Kerry’s participation in the invasion of South Vietnam.  It took no small chutzpah for Obama to lump African-American slaves’ struggles and spirituality with the racist U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. Perhaps "God" 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 Kerry and his superiors’ territory to "patrol.” Perhaps it was the same arrogant, nationalist and racist sensibilities that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own slaves and murder and steal land from Mexico and the indigenous first “American” nations and which allowed the Bush administration to attempt to seize Iraq as a colonial possession. 




Obama’s eager willingness to whitewash U.S. foreign policy history in accord with the Orwellian requirements of dominant imperial canon was demonstrated in the foreign relations chapter of his bestselling 2006 campaign book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” (New York: Crown, 2006). Bearing the grandiose title “The World Beyond Our Borders,” this chapter displayed rigid acceptance of the doctrinal notion that the United States’ foreign policies have long and consistently advanced “shared ideas of freedom” and the “rule of law” and “international institutions.”  It praised the wonderful (for Obama) “post-[World War Two] leadership of president Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall and George Kennan” for “craft[ing]…a new…order that married [Woodrow] Wilsonian idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of American power with a humility regarding America’s ability to control events around the world” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 284). The benevolent, wise “Wilsonian” architects of the postwar Pax Americana, Obama claimed in “Audacity,” sought a “democratic” world order in which the U.S. countered the limitless “totalitarian” Soviet threat and “signaled a willingness to show restraint in the exercise of its power” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 285).


This was remarkably sterile and reactionary commentary on such memorable moments in American “humility” as the arch-criminal atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki  (mass-murderous shots across the bow of the emerging Cold War), the enormous imperial assaults on Korea and Indochina (millions of “enemy” civilians dead), the U.S. restoration of fascist power in “liberated” Italy, the intervention against popular social revolution in Greece (smeared as a Soviet export by U.S. policymakers in order to “Scare the Hell out of the American people” to garner support for massive new imperial “defense” expenditures)  and the U.S. subversion of democracy and national independence across the planet. Iran (1953), Dominican Republic (1965), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1970-1973), Indonesia (1965) are just some of the more spectacular examples in a list that goes on and on.


Washington consistently justified its remarkable record of global criminality after World War II with a great enabling myth that Obama eagerly embraces: the existence of a Soviet Union willing and able “to spread [in Obama’s words] its totalitarian brand of communism” (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 204). Under the guise of protecting the world from that imperially useful but non-existent threat – honest U.S. assessments acknowledged that the real Soviet danger was that USSR modeled the possibility of independent national development outside the parameters of U.S.-led world-capitalist supervision and indicating an impermissible refusal “to complement the industrial economies of the West” (William Yandell Elliot, ed., The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy [New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1955], p. 42; Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy [New York: Hill and Wang, 1991], p.26)  – Obama’s “hardheaded” “Wilsonians” ordered the murder (preferably via proxy agents like the Indonesian  Suharto regime and the Shah of Iran) of untold “Third World” millions.


Humble “restraint” in the “exercise of [U.S.] power” is not the first description that comes into the mind of one who takes an honest and comprehensive look at that troubling record.


It was all very consistent with the “idealistic” history of the actual (Woodrow) Wilson administration, whose “extreme racism” (Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996], p. 44) found grisly expression in the brutal U.S. invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As Noam Chomsky observes, “Wilson’s troops murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery and demolished the constitutional system in Haiti.”  These actions followed in accord with Wilson Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s belief that “the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization” and possessed “an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature.” As Chomsky notes, “while supervising the takeover of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Wilson built his reputation as a lofty idealist defending self-determination and the rights of small nations with impressive oratory.  [But] there is no contradiction [because] Wilsonian doctrine was restricted to people of the right sort: those ‘at a low stage of civilization’ need not apply” for the rights of democracy and self-determination (Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues [Boston, MA: South End, 1993], pp. 202-203).


Racism aside, Lansing said that the effective meaning of the Monroe Doctrine was simply that “the United States considers its own interests.  The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end” (Lansing is quoted in Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants [Berkeley, CA: 1992], p. 11). Wilson agreed, but found it politically unwise to say so publicly.


Such high “idealistic” sentiments certainly informed a noble Wilsonian intervention against the Russian Revolution in 1918 and 1919.


Of course, none of this non-existent history prevents Obama from praising Wilson for seeing that “it was in America’s interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples and provide the world  a legal framework that could help avoid future conflicts” (Obama, Audacity, p. 283).




Historical deletion was a major problem with an essay Obama published in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2007. Titled “Renewing America’s Leadership,” this 5000-word article began by praising Franklin Delano Roosevelt for “buil[ding] the most formidable military the world had ever known” and for giving “purpose to our struggle against fascism” with his “Four Freedoms.”


Much of Obama’s treatise was dedicated to the erasure of Washington’s past imperial criminality.  “At moments of great peril in the last century,” Obama wrote, “American leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy managed both to protect the American people and to expand opportunity for the next generation. What is more, they ensured that America, by deed and example, led and lifted the world – that we stood for and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond our borders.”


It was interesting that Obama’s essay never named the “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of worship.  One likely explanation for that deletion was that U.S policymakers from Roosevelt II through Kennedy (and beyond) regularly violated most of them in the enforcement of their particular imperial concept of the “national interest.” During the middle and late 1930s, US policymakers helped enable the rise of European fascism that culminated in Hitler’s march of terror. The US watched with approval as Fascist darkness set over Europe during the inter-war years. American policymakers saw Italian, Spanish, German and other strains of the European fascist disease as a welcome counters to “the Soviet threat” – essentially the demonstration Russia made of the possibilities for national outside the capitalist world system – and to Left movements, parties and related social-democratic policy drifts within Western Europe.


In 1937, Roosevelt’s U.S. State Department’s European Division argued that European fascism was compatible with America’s economic interests. This key diplomatic agency reported that fascism’s rise was a natural response of “the rich and middle classes” to the threat posed by “dissatisfied masses,” who, with the “the example of the Russian Revolution before them,” might “swing to the left.” Fascism, the State Department argued, “must succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle class, will again turn to the left.” The French Popular Front government of the middle 1930s was an example of the democratic socialist threat that made German fascism acceptable to American officials before Hitler launched his drive for a New World Order (Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy [New York: Hill and Wang, 1991], p. 41).


It is true that Nazi Germany became an avowed U.S. enemy during WWII. This did not occur, however, until fascism, holding power in two leading rival industrial states, directly attacked U.S. interests. American policymakers intervened against fascism on the basis of perceived national self-interest, not out of any particular concern for the human rights of the French or, for that matter, European Jews or anyone else (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States [New York: HarperPerennial,  2003], pp. 407-410; Chomsky, Deterring Democracy,  pp. 37-42). 




But back to noble America’s compassionate “restraint in the exercise of its power” in the post-WWII era that was so beautifully guided by the likes of George Kennan and Dean Acheson. After the “good war,” America’s accommodation of European and Asian fascism in the inter-war period became something of a model for U.S. Third World policy. In the name of resisting supposedly expansionist Soviet influence and “communism,” the U.S. sponsored, funded, equipped, and provided political cover for numerous “Third World fascist” regimes. In doing so, it enlisted and protected numerous Nazi War criminals (e.g. Klaus Barbie) deemed to possess useful anti-Left “counter-insurgency” skills (Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, pp. 14-25).


To grasp some of the “hardheaded realism” behind such U.S. Cold War policies as the sponsorship of vicious military dictatorships in Indonesia, Iran, Greece and Brazil (to name just a few “Free World” partners), we can consult an interesting formulation from Obama’s wise “Wilsonian” hero George Kennan.  As Kennan explained in Policy Planning Study 23, crafted for the State Department in 1948:


“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…to do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…We should cease to talk about vague and …unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.  The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.  The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”


Later Kennan would explain the need to crush those who refused to serve U.S. interests in the Third World (defined as “communists”) by any means necessary: “The final answer might be an unpleasant one, but…we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government.  This is not shameful since the Communists are traitors…It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists” (quoted in Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, p. 11).


The directly and indirectly U.S.-slaughtered millions of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia (the last were victims of what Obama’s Audacity of Hope  charitably called a “morally rudderless” U.S. bombing campaign ) and Central America stand as grisly but – inside the “inverted totalitarian” United States (see Sheldon Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) and much of the West – officially invisible testimony to Uncle Sam’s marvelous “restraint.” And so do the countless other Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who suffered under oppressive dictatorships and ruling classes routinely funded and equipped by “the watchtower on the walls of freedom” (as Obama’s hero John Fitzgerald Kennedy once described the United States) in the name of the mythic battle against me

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