The Nobel Gift: A Quick Note

“Barack Obama,” the left journalist Jeremy Scahill noted at a socialist conference in Chicago last June, “is an incredibly Orwellian character.  He can make people think that war is peace.”


Not just people in the United States. Consistent with much of the U.S. foreign policy elite’s pre-election calculation that Barack Hussein Obama could provide the badly George W. Bush-damaged “brand USA” a dramatic and instant public relations makeover on the global stage, Orwellian “Obamania” may be more pernicious and persistent overseas than it is in the U.S. The virus has taken on an especially strong form in Western Europe, where “left” and “liberal” hopes (and illusions) about the new administration have burned with special stupefying intensity.


The most recent and ridiculous example is of course the (I think unsurprising) award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama by a “leftish” committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. Even Obama seems taken aback, noting correctly in a recent mass e-mail that “I do not deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.”


Those figures include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke in morally clear terms of how the U.S. government had become “the leading purveyor of violence” in the world (April 4, 1967) and who noted that a nation approaches “spiritual death when it spends more on military defense than on social uplift.”


It is said that the Norwegians wanted to send a message against the unilateral American imperialism and militarism epitomized by the Cheney-Bush years and to encourage less brazenly hubristic, world-hegemony-oriented behavior on the part of the U.S.


They should have granted their prize to the great anti-imperial U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky, who has spent more than five decades brilliantly and exhaustively chronicling, contextualizing, criticizing, and resisting the policies, structures, and crimes (not just the “mistakes” and strategic missteps)  of American Empire, from Vietnam and Cambodia to East Timor to Central America to both Iraq invasions and the current criminal war in Afghanistan, undergoing escalation and expansion under the Obama administration. 


Instead, the Nobel committee updated Orwell (and Kafka, Heller, and Vonnegut) by giving the ultimate “peace” honor to an imperial chief executive who has:


* escalated terrorist, civilian-slaughtering war in South Asia, dangerously expanding the war theater (now called “Af-Pak”)to include nuclear Pakistan.


* Responded coldly to Afghanistan president’s early request that the U.S. stop killing Afghani civilians.


* Promoted a notorious assassin and death-squad leader to the position of Commander of U.S. Forces in “Af-Pak.” Lt. General Stanley A McChrystal, former chief of the military’s special Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, 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.  According to U.S. empire-critic Tom Engelhardt, McChrystal is “a legacy figure from the worst days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era” who “comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection.”


* Indefinitely continued the disastrous Iraq occupation, pressuring the Iraqi government not to permit the popular referendum required by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – the withdrawal document forced on the Bush administration by the Iraqi resistance.


* Refused to once acknowledge the criminal, immoral, and illegal nature of the Iraq War or of any other U.S. war, including Vietnam and, of course, Afghanistan (“Obama’s Vietnam”).


* Sustained the large-scale use of expansive, largely unaccountable corporate-mercenary fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.


* Increased the U.S. “defense” (empire) budget (itself responsible for half the world’s military spending and the maintenance of more than 760 military bases spread across more than 130 countries), consistent with his advance dismissal (as leading Bush-Obama bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported last November) of a “peace dividend”)


* Refused to rule out approval for an Israel attack on Iran.


* Consistently raised bogus alarms about “Iran’s nuclear program” even as he moves forward (as the Inter-Press Service recently reported) with efforts to reconstitute U.S. nuclear weapons


* Refused to in any serious way against Israel’s brutal and criminal occupation of Palestine.


* Refused to move in any significant way against a right-wing coup against a democratically elected president in Honduras.


* Repeatedly crafted and advanced arrogant nationally narcissistic “American exceptionalist” rhetoric on the United States’ supposed special moral and historical qualifications and duty to run the world’s affairs by force when “necessary.”


* Repeatedly claimed that the U.S. must not apologize for any of its actions (the worst ones considered well-intentioned “mistakes,” never imperial crimes) since it is on the whole “an enormous force for good in the world.”


* Repackaged and reproduced essential core aspects of Bush’s “counterterrorist” assault on basic human and civil rights at home and abroad.  According to Jack Goldsmith, a former Assistant Attorney General in the Bush II administration, Dick Cheney’s premise “that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era [counterterrorism] policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric…. The main difference between the Obama and Bush administrations concerns not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging.”


I could go on but time is short and the list is depressing. “Overall,” Scahill rightly noted last June, “he’s implementing a U.S. foreign policy that in many ways–advances the interest of the American empire in a way the Republicans could only have dreamed of doing…What people, I think, misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire – who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they’re supporting radical change, when in effect what they’re doing is supporting a radical expansion of the U.S. empire.”


The title of the article in which Scahill made these comments spoke a mouthful “Re-branding War and Occupation.”


The “re-branding” project is enhanced, of course, by the Nobel Peace Prize.


“Though Obama’s leadership has enhanced America’s image,” an ideologically diverse group of British professors recently noted in a letter to The Guardian, “as yet there has been no major change from the policies and outcomes of the Bush years…Obama presents himself as the ‘un-Bush.’ But when you look at substance, rather than style and rhetoric, and the structural constraints on presidential power, you can legitimately question the extent of his ability to change US policies.”


“As far as policy is concerned, unless [Obama] is under a lot of pressure from [progressive] activist sectors,” Chomsky noted last April, “he’s not going to go beyond what he’s presented himself as in actual policy statements or cabinet choices and so on: a centrist Democrat who’s going to basically continue Bush’s polices in a more modulated way.”


The pressure has yet to reach anything like the level levels required. The Nobel award doesn’t help.


We can hardly expect the Norwegians to rescind their Orwellian gift.  We could perhaps ask them to issue an apology to the people of Bola Boluk, who have good reasons to agree with Ahmid Shabir, an 18-yeard old student who yesterday told the Associated Press that “I don’t think Obama deserves this. I don’t know who’s making these decisions.  The prize should go to someone who has done something for peace and humanity.”


Obama’s escalation of deadly attacks on “insurgents” who live intermingled with civilians has brought a predictable increase in “collateral damage” in South Asia.  An especially graphic and politically difficult episode came in the first week of May 2009.  That’s when U.S. air-strikes killed more 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart 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.”


The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many such mass U.S. aerial killings in Afghanistan since October 2001 – was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on “Taliban grenades.” While Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep “regret” about the loss of innocent life, neither she nor Obama would issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province. 


By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official because that official had scared U.S. civilians with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan.  The exercise reminded New Yorkers of 9/11. 


The disparity was telling. Frightening New Yorkers led to a presidential admission of guilt and request for forgiveness along with the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require an apology.  Nobody had to be fired.  The Pentagon was also permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians died — stories that were taken seriously by "mainstream" (corporate-imperial) media. The U.S. subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that reduced the civilian body count drastically and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of U.S. bombs.


Orwell would have been impressed. He would have been blown away by the Nobel decision.



Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street is currently writing The Re-Branding: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power and the Politics of Progressive Betrayal (2010).

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