Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama

Beyond Surprise


Ever since the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency I’ve been telling liberals and leftists why they should not be surprised at the new chief executive’s continuation and even expansion of various supreme United States policy evils.  The evils in question include Obama’s  continuation of the criminal occupation of Iraq, the escalation of U.S. imperial violence with significant predictable "collateral damage" (the "inadvertent" murder of innocent civilians) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, continuing U.S. backing (beneath the myth [1] that Obama is reversing prior U.S. support for Israeli aggression and apartheid) of Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians, the granting of massive taxpayer bailouts to corporate and Wall Street perpetrators and the increase of Pentagon funding while millions more are pushed into economic destitution at home and abroad and the pushing of corporate-friendly health-care "reform" over the obvious efficient and social democratic solution of single-payer.  Truth be told, the list goes on and on. 


The reasons not to be surprised include Obama’s long history of accepting and embracing dominant domestic hierarchies and doctrines, the praise he has received from and given to Republicans over the years, the corporate and imperial operatives he has long surrounded himself with (e.g. Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, James Jones, Rahm Emmanuel etc.), the record-setting corporate campaign sponsorship he has received, the many warnings that I and other left writers and activists have long given against the "Obama Kool Aid," the conservative historical record of the Democratic Party, the narrow and corporate-crafted spectrum and parameters of U.S. political culture, the remarkable mass-consent-manufacturing and populace-confusing power of  U.S. corporate media, candidate Obama’s reluctance to seriously tackle questions of poverty and institutional racism, the chilling silence he maintained as Israel launched a monumentally barbarous U.S.-supported attack on trapped civilians in the Gaza Strip last December and January, and the repeated statements he made prior to his election and inauguration upholding the doctrinal notion that the U.S. is some sort of special  benevolent agent of "good in the world."


"I Love Him"


Until now I have forgotten to mention another key reason to be unsurprised by Obama’s cold betrayal of progressive- and peace-sounding campaign rhetoric: his "love" for the vapid American philosopher Reinhold Neibuhr in the spring of 2007. 


Here is a significant passage from the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks in April of that year:


"Sometimes you take a shot."


"Yesterday evening I was interviewing Barack Obama and we were talking about effective foreign aid programs in African.  His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they’re afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on."


"Out of the blue I asked, ‘have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?’"


Obama’s tone changed.  ‘I love him.  He’s one of my favorite philosophers.’"



"So I asked, What do you take from him?"


" ‘take away,’ Obama answered in a rush of words, ‘the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.  I take away…the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.’" [2]


Later, in an interview with the conservative journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, Brooks recalled that "for the next 20 minutes, [Obama] gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you.  And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say." [3]



"Oh My God, the Paradox of Grace"


From a left perspective, there would have been more reason to feel a twinge of nausea. Neibuhr became the "theologian of the [ U.S. ] establishment" in the post-World War II of American ascendancy because of the elegant-sounding ease with which he granted imperial policymakers what the leading Left intellectual Noam Chomsky called "a divine license to kill." [4] The American ruling class high priest Niebuhr granted this moral and intellectual indulgence with his fundamentally idiotic concept of "the paradox of grace."  This idea held that all great "historical achievements" are unavoidably scarred by the "taint of sin" and that policymakers must let fear of "sinning" prevent them from acting on their "obligation to realize truth and goodness in history." [5] As Chomsky once noted:


"[Niebuhr] was revered by the Kennedy liberal types, by people [leading Cold War architect] George Kennan.  He was considered a moral teacher of the [post-WWII U.S. power elite] generation.  It’s interesting to look at why.  I actually went through his writings once. The intellectual level is depressingly low.  But there’s something in there that made him appealing.  It was what he called the ‘paradox of grace.’  What it comes down to is, no matter how much you try to do good, you’re always going to do harm…"


"That’s very appealing advice for people who are planning to enter into a life of crime.  To say, "no matter how much I try to do good I’m always going to harm people.  That’s the paradox of grace. You can’t get out if it."  A wonderful idea for a Mafia don.  Then he can go ahead and do whatever he feels like, and if he harms people, ‘Oh my God, the paradox of grace.’  That explains why he was so appealing [to U.S. elites] in the post-World War II period They were going to be the managers or else the commissars for a period of global conquest, running the world, which is obviously going to entail enormous crimes.  Isn’t it nice to have this doctrine before us?  Of course, we’re superbenevolent and humane, but the paradox of grace!" [6]


Niebuhr provided a childishly simple if superficially erudite rationalization – heralded as non-ideological "pragmatism" (a key purported attribute of Obama and his role model John Fitzgerald Kennedy [7]) – for U.S. war crimes in the post-World War II era.  This was the basic reason that he came to be "regarded with respect approaching reverence" by leading U.S. intellectuals and state managers.


That respect, bordering on "awe," could hardly be traced to any serious cerebral accomplishment.  As Niebuhr’s able biographer Richard Fox observed, the venerated philosopher was a distinctly pedestrian thinker who commonly reduced his opponents’ theories to simplistic caricature.  Chomsky noted in 1987 that Niebuhr’s "books and papers on historical topics and contemporary affairs are…sparing in factual reference…Evidently, many found his intellectual contributions to be compelling, but this effect cannot be traced to their factual content, documentation, or enlightening selection of factual materials; or to sustained rational argument, which is rarely to be discerned. It must lie somewhere else." [8]


"I Don’t Believe in the U.S. Apologizing"


Candidate Obama had a chilling Niebuhrian moment during his triumphant, proto-presidential campaign trip to Europe in July of 2008. When CNN’s Candy Crowley asked Obama if "there’s anything that’s happened in the past 7 1/2 years that the U.S. needs to apologize for in terms of foreign policy?" Obama responded by saying, "No, I don’t believe in the U.S. apologizing. As I said I think the war in Iraq was a mistake.  We didn’t keep our eye on the ball in Afghanistan .  But, you know, hindsight is 20/20, and I’m much more interested in looking forward rather than looking backwards," For good measure, Obama  added that "the U.S. remains overwhelmingly a force of  good in the world." [9]


This was an interesting comment in the ongoing bloody wake of a monumentally criminal and brazenly petro-imperial U.S. invasion that killed more than 1 million Iraqis and maimed and displaced millions more between March of 2008 and early July of 2008 – this after an earlier massive U.S. military assault (the Gulf War of 1990-91) and more than a decades of U.S.-led "economic sanctions" that killed more than a million of Iraqis between 1991 and March 2003.  According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in the mainstream journal Current History in the December prior to Obama’s European tour, " Iraq has been killed, never to rise again.  The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.  Only fools talk of solutions now.  There is no solution.  The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained." [10]      


Letters of No Apology


Perhaps the strong Afghan "war" [11] enthusiast [12] Obama should have written a Letter of No Apology explain his latter Niebuhrianism to the people of Iraq or just to Orifa Ahmed.  On October 7, 2001, Orifa’s small house in the Afghan village of Bibi Mahru was destroyed and turned into a 50-foor crater by a 500-pound bomb dropped by an American F-16 plane. The explosion killed her husband (a carpet weaver), six of her children and two children who lived (and died) next door.   Away visiting relatives when the bombing occurred, Orifa returned to find pieces of her children’s flesh scattered around the killing site. She received $400 from U.S. authorities to compensate her for her losses.  [13]


Another Niebuhrian letter could have gone to Gulam Rasul, a school headmaster in the Afghan town of Khair Khana .  On the morning of October 21, 2001, the United States dropped a 500-pound bomb on his house, killing his wife, three of his sons, his sister and her husband, his brother, and his sister-in-law. [14]  


Another Letter of Apology could have gone to Sher Kahn, an old man who lost seven relatives when the United States assaulted the Afghan village of Niazi Qala on December 29, 2001.  Here is how the British author and filmmaker John Pilger describes the attack:


"The roar of the planes had started at three in the morning, long after everybody had retired for the night.  Then the bombs began fall – 500-pounders leading the way, scooping out the earth and felling a row of houses.  According to neighbors watching from a distance, the planes flew three sorties over the village and a helicopter hovered close to the ground, firing flares, then rockets.  Women and children were seen running from the houses towards a dried pond, perhaps in search of protection from the gunfire, but were shot as they ran." [15]


Additional Letters of No Apology could have gone out from the "antiwar" Obama campaign to civilians and non-combatants facing torture and humiliation at the United States’ Bagram Air Force Base (near Kabul); the survivors  of  64 civilians the U.S. killed when it bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan in early July of 2008, not long before Obama’s trip to Europe (the fourth wedding party the U.S.-led "coalition" had blown up in Afghanistan since the beginning of its invasion of that country – an invasion Obama ran on expanding)[16]; the countless other U.S. attacks on Afghan villages that have added to a civilian death toll that certainly goes well into the thousands since the U.S. initiated its so-called "liberation" of Afghanistan from a Taliban government the U.S. had itself largely put into place. 


In all of these letters, Obama could have expounded on the logic of his "loved" philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. The former University of Chicago law professor turned president could have carefully explained how the inherently graced United States ‘ duty to act in accord with its benevolent historical mission of "goodness" sadly requires it NOT to shrink from its paradoxical duty to sin against humanity by slaughtering the occasional village, family, or nation. 



Escalation Without Apology in Af-Pak


Since coming into the White House, Obama has significantly and quite unapologetically escalated the scale and intensity of U.S. imperial violence in the newly merged war theater of Afghanistan and Pakistan ("Af-Pak"). As a new president he coldly rebuffed Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai’s request that U.S. stop killing Afghan civilians by immediately ordering missile attacks on Pashtun villages. Civilian casualties have risen in natural accord with Obama’s decision to go for broke in the colonial "counterinsurgency" campaign in South Asia – a choice epitomized by his selection of Stanley A. McChrystal to command U.S. forces in "Af-Pak. As chief of the military’s special Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq for five years starting in 2003, McChrystal was involved in a prisoner abuse scandal in Baghdad ‘s Camp Nana and played a key role in covering up the "friendly fire" death of professional football star and Army Ranger Pat Tllman.  By Alexander Cockburn’s account, "McChrystal’s expertise is in assassination and ‘decapitation.’. As commander of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for nearly five years starting in 2003, McChrystal was in charge of death squad ops…"[17] Dead civilians – a topic the Afghan President Karzai so impolitely raised with his new boss in Washington – have been a real "public relations problem" for the new White House’s efforts to reach out and "touch the soul of the Muslim world."


An especially graphic and politically difficult episode came in the first week of May 2009.  That’s when U.S. air-strikes killed as many as 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan ‘s Farah Province . Ninety three of the dead villagers torn about by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:


"In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province , Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country."


" ‘ The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,’ Mr. Farahi said."


" ‘ Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.’" Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died, he said." [18]


The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on "Taliban grenades." While Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "regret" about the loss of innocent life, neither her nor Obama would issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province. 


By contrast, Obama’s White House military director had recently apologized and was then fired after the White House scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover that reminded people of 9/11 in late April of 2009. Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later apologized for the incident in an official letter to Congress as national media outlets carefully related the story of the American empire’s latest atrocity in Bola Boluk. [19]


The disparity was instructive. The frightening of New Yorkers by a public relations flight elicited White House and Pentagon apologies along with the loss of a White House job. Butchering more than 100 Afghan civilians from the sky did not elicit any apology.  Nobody had to be fired.  And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians died — stories that were taken seriously by "mainstream" media. 


U.S. authorities subsequently conducted a superficial investigation purporting to show that Afghan villagers and authorities had exaggerated the civilian body count resulting from the "regrettable" misdirection of inherently benevolent U.S. bombs.


The people of Afghanistan could be forgiven for thinking it might not have been all bad if the U.S. "liberators" took their "eyes off the ball in Afghanistan ."  U.S.- "liberated" Afghanistan remained desperately poor and violence-plagued under the control of religious extremists and warlords and the deadly U.S. Empire and its European allies.  Women are arguably less safe there now than under the Taliban. [20]


"Emotionally Potent Oversimplifications"


Another one of Niehbur’s influential formulations should also send a shudder down the spine rather than "a tingle up the knee [and the thigh, David Brooks?]" of those who believe in democracy instead of top-down corporate-imperial rule.  Niebuhr preached that adult rationality is the property of the "cool observers" — the privileged few in the educated establishment.  Ordinary working people and mere citizens, by contrast, are guided by blind faith and momentary impulse.  According to Niebuhr, the "cool observers" must manage the stupidity of "the average man" by crafting and disseminating "necessary illusions" and "emotionally potent oversimplifications" to keep the ignorant and dangerous rabble in line and under the proper control of their masters. [21]


As I demonstrate in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (to be re-issued next January in paperback form with a new preface and final chapter reflecting on the first seven months of the Obama administration) there has been no small measure of illusion (necessary or not) and "emotionally potent oversimplification" at the heart and soul of supposedly "anti-war" (according to a campaign fairly tale [22] Obama ran on) Obama phenomenon. The "deeply conservative," Wall-Street- and Pentagon-approved, and hyper-cool, Harvard-educated Obama has worked with relish to fulfill his promise to the corporate, military, and intellectual elite: to keep the citizenry pacified and deluded and to stem the threat of popular rebellion — to "manage [betrayed popular] expectations" — by providing fake-progressive rebel’s clothing for the ever-deepening concentration of wealth and power and the continuation of corporate-imperial rule.     



Paul Street (paulsrtreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many essays, reviews, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics: www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987







1. For devastating and comprehensive criticism of the myth, see Noam Chomsky, "Turning Point?" ZNet (June 8, 2009), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21649


2. David Brooks, "Obama, Gospel and Verse," New York Times, April 26, 2007.


3. Quoted in Danny Shea, "David Brooks: Sarah Palin Represents a Fatal Cancer on the Republican Party," Huffington Post (October 8, 2008), read at www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/08/david-brooks-sarah-palin_n_133001.html.


4. Noam Chomsky, "Reinhold Niebuhr," Grand Street, Volume 6, no.2 (Winter 1987)


5. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (1941), quoted in Chomsky, "Reinhold Niebuhr."


6. Noam Chomsky, Keeping the Rabble in Line: Interviews with David Barsamian (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1994), pp.96-97.


7. David Brooks, "The Insiders’ Crusade," New York Times, November 21, 2008; Public Broadcasting System, News Hour, "Brooks and Markus on Obama’s Cabinet Picks, Economy Woes" (November 21, 2008), read transcript at  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec08/bmeconomy_11-21.html; Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions: the Presidential Politics of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (New York: Longman’s, 1976); Paul Street, "David Brooks’ Pragmatic Illusions and the New Administration," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (November 25, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3692


8. Chomsky, "Reinhold Niebuhr."


9. "Transcript of Obama Interview on CNN" (July 25, 2008), The Page, read at http://thepage.time.com/transcript-of-obama-interview-on-cnn/


10. Nir Rosen, "The Death of Iraq ," Current History (December 2007), p. 31.  One wonders what Rosen would have had to say about the following comment offered by Barack Obama to autoworkers assembled at the General Motors plant in Wisconsin on February 2008, just before that state’s Democratic primary: "It’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together." See WIFR Television, CBS 23, Rockford , Illinois , "Obama Speaks at General Motors in Janesville ," February 13, 2008, read at http://www.wifr.com/morningshow/headlines/15618592.html.For those who knew the depth and degree of the destruction inflicted on Iraq by two invasions, one ongoing, and more than a decade of deadly embargo, this statement was nothing short of obscene.


11. It has been tiresome to hear candidate, President-elect, and President Obama repeatedly refer to the United States as living "in a time of war."  Where’s the war? The U.S. is engaged in one-sided imperial violence against Iraq and Afghanistan . The U.S. is waging colonial war on relatively defenseless others.  There no American war with foreign states or people being fought or waged on U.S. soil.


12.  For some details, see Paul Street, "Obama’s Good and ‘Proper’ War," ZNet (March 5, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16760.


13. John Pilger, Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire ( New York : Nation Books, 2007), pp. 284-85.


14. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, pp.285-86.


15. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, p. 286.


16. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, pp. 287=293; John Pilger, "Obama, The Prince of Bait and Switch," The New Statesman, July 26, 2008.


17. Alexander Cockburn, "How Long Does it Take" CounterPunch (May 23 2009), read online at http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn05222009.html.


18. Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, "Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War," New York Times, May 6, 2009, read at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/07/world/asia/07afghan.html?_r=1.

Note the nationally narcissistic tone this article’s title, which reads as if the only real problem with the Bola Boluk slaughter was that it undermined colonial victims’ (supposed) backing of imperial assault on their country. A more accurate title would have read "Latest U.S. Atrocity Further Embitters Afghan Victims of Continuing Criminal U.S. Invasion."


19. Christina Boyle, "President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake’ After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York," New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, "Presidential Plane’s Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000," Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, "Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco," Los Angeles Time, May 9, 2009.


20. Pilger, Freedom Next Time, pp. 264-293.


21. Niebuhr is quoted in Noam Chomsky, "Force and Opinion," Z Magazine (July-August 1991), read online at http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199107–.htm.


22. During the New Hampshire primary campaign in January 2008, Bill Clinton accurately noted the "fairy tale" nature of Obama’s claim to be an "antiwar" candidate. For the imperial and militarist reality beneath the fake-progressive imagery, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder,CO : Paradigm, 2008), 123-163

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