When liberals champion imperialism

May 11, 2011

Osama bin Laden's assassination is being used to strengthen the war machine--and liberals who criticized the "war on terror" when Bush was in charge are cheering it on.

THE KILLING of Osama bin Laden was greeted with plenty of flag-waving and gushing tributes to the U.S. military.

And look who's leading the chorus. Many of the same Democratic Party politicians and liberal media luminaries who criticized George W. Bush for his unilateral and militaristic foreign policy have changed their tune--because Barack Obama gave the order to kill bin Laden.

Liberals, as Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote, "were able to take the lead and show the world (and themselves) that they are no wilting, delicate wimps; it's not merely swaggering right-wing Texans, but they, too, who can put bullets in people's heads and dump corpses into the ocean, and then joke and cheer about it afterwards."

Bin Laden's killing had nothing to do with making the world "safer" and "a better place," as Obama claimed in his speech announcing the assassination on May 1. The details that emerged last week made it clear that the operation was months in the making, with every aspect planned out to maximize its impact in boosting the image of the U.S. military and the "war on terror."

Barack Obama makes a speech in front of troops in Afghanistan
Barack Obama makes a speech in front of troops in Afghanistan (Jeromy K. Cross)

The killing of bin Laden will make the world a more dangerous place by building domestic support for the U.S. war machine--its soldiers and airmen, as well as its spies, commandos and assassins--to act more aggressively around the world.

Whether they realize it or not, this is what people are cheering on with the celebration of bin Laden's killing--a success for U.S. imperialism that will be used to justify the further projection of American military power.

The fact that people who talk about peace and diplomacy and respect for national sovereignty are applauding the loudest makes it all the more important to insist on this central truth about the U.S. political system: When it comes to imperialism, the Democrats may have tactical differences with the Republicans, but both parties are committed to the same goal--a world in which the U.S. stays on top, and its military can be used at will anywhere in the world to impose American economic and political dominance.

IF ANYTHING, liberal politicians and commentators were more enthusiastic about the assassination than Republicans, who had to deal with the fact that bin Laden had eluded their man while he was in the White House.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd heaped contempt on anyone who, because of their "liberal guilt," didn't applaud the "effortless macho" of the raid:

We briefly celebrated one of the few clear-cut military victories we've had in a long time, a win that made us feel like Americans again--smart and strong and capable of finding our enemies and striking back at them without getting trapped in multitrillion-dollar Groundhog Day occupations.

"Made us feel like Americans again"--yes, Maureen Dowd meant that in a good way. In Dowd's world, people in the U.S. should be proud of an America where the military's elite assassins are sent out to act as judge, jury and executioner to anyone the Commander-in-Chief determines is an enemy--notwithstanding the fact that they may have been an ally in the past, as bin Laden was.

The cheerleading wasn't confined to the mainstream media. Last week's cover of the liberal weekly Boston Phoenix newspaper featured a picture of Barack Obama over a headline that declared "American Badass: Progressive Politics for a Safer World." Inside, writer Greg Cook proclaimed: "[F]or the sake of the country's progressives, Obama needs to take credit where credit is due. It's not simply lucky timing that resulted in bin Laden being found on Obama's watch. It was a result of the president's specific, pragmatic focus."

Then there's Jon Stewart, the host of Daily Show who relentlessly challenged the lies of the Bush administration and its "war on terror"--and who occasionally criticizes Obama for failing to live up to the expectation that his presidency would be more of a change from Bush's.

But on May 2, Stewart's celebration of bin Laden's killing was as ugly and jingoistic as any. "I suppose I should be expressing some ambivalence about the targeted killing of another human being," Stewart said. "And yet, no. I just want details." He concluded his monologue with the words "We're back, baby"--and a graphic meant to show that America finally "grew a pair."

Such displays from people known as critics of the "war on terror"--at least when Bush and Cheney were in charge--might be shocking. But the truth is that someone like Stewart, however distant he may seem from those in the seats of power in Washington, is reflecting the attitude of official liberalism and the Democratic Party toward the American empire.

History shows that the Democrats have been every bit as much a party of war and imperialism as the Republicans. The two parties have sometimes--though not always--differed over the means, but never the ends.

IN 1976, when he was the Republican vice presidential candidate, Bob Dole famously pointed out that all the wars of the 20th century had been "Democrat wars."

He was right. Until the 1991 Gulf War under George Bush Sr., every major U.S. military conflict of the 20th century was started by a Democratic president.

The U.S. empire emerged on the world stage under Democratic presidents--Woodrow Wilson in the First World War and Franklin Roosevelt in the Second. It was Democrat Harry Truman, taking over from Roosevelt in the closing months of the Second World War, who ordered the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Truman set in motion the Cold War against the former USSR with a war in Korea and CIA-backed destabilization campaigns and coups in Guatemala and Iran. Then came the Vietnam War, begun under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, which led to the death of 4 million Southeast Asians and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers.

Dole and his running mate Gerald Ford were defeated in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, who rehabilitated U.S. militarism in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam with an escalation of the Cold War. His administration backed the Afghanistan resistance against a USSR invasion, which is where the CIA was able to give Osama bin Laden his big break.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton routinely bombed Iraq to impose the "no-fly zone" set up after Bush's 1991 Gulf War, and he maintained the genocidal regime of sanctions responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five, according to the UN. Clinton also turned the so-called "peace dividend" that was supposed come after the end of the Cold War into a new expansion of the U.S. empire, in the guise of NATO, into Eastern Europe--and he launched wars in Bosnia and Kosovo using the cover of a "humanitarian" mission.

All this may seem like a distant memory after eight years of George Bush Jr. The Bush administration recognized that al-Qaeda's September 11 attacks could be the "catastrophic and catalyzing event" that its neconservative foreign policy team hoped for to launch a war to remake the Middle East--under the pretext of stopping terrorism, with their old ally, Osama bin Laden, in the role of chief villain.

Bush, Cheney and the rest of the neocons became despised around the world for their arrogance and ruthlessness--and increasingly within the U.S. itself, as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and then Iraq ground on.

Barack Obama first began to look like a winner in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination because he seemed to be "antiwar"--the candidate among the major contenders most willing to criticize Bush for the failed war on Iraq, launched on the basis of lies and deceptions. But Obama was careful to distinguish between Iraq and Afghanistan, where he vowed to increase U.S. forces.

On this promise, Obama delivered, and then some. Just weeks before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, Obama announced a "surge" of soldiers to Afghanistan that doubled the U.S. troop presence. The "antiwar" president also expanded the Afghanistan war into Pakistan with air strikes from Predator drones that have killed thousands of people.

In Iraq, Obama first delayed his promised withdrawal of combat troops--and then the "withdrawal" turned out not be so much a withdrawal as a redeployment that left some 50,000 U.S. soldiers, now reclassified as "advise-and-assist brigades," serving in Iraq, alongside tens of thousands of private contractors.

Obama the candidate promised to stop the civil liberties-shredding policies of the Bush years, put an end to the use of torture against prisoners in the "war on terror" and close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. Obama the president still hasn't closed Guantánamo, he's defended the policy of indefinite detention and military tribunals for "war on terror" prisoners, he's maintained the so-called "rendition" program to outsource torture to U.S. allies, and he's continued targeted assassinations.

As James Jay Carafano, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the New York Times, "I don't think it's even fair to call it Bush Lite. It's Bush. It's really, really hard to find a difference that's meaningful and not atmospheric."

THIS CONTINUITY from Bush to Obama isn't unique--it's characteristic of U.S. imperialism from its beginnings more than a century ago. The two mainstream parties that dominate the Washington political system share a commitment to a common agenda, whatever their differences over the details. Bush speechwriter David Frum, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, made this same point in an Internet discussion with Glenn Greenwald:

I have been impressed by the extent to which [Obama's] counter-terrorism policy is continuous with his predecessor...I think the Bush policy is more continuous with the Clinton policy than people generally recognize...[T]he main lines of it are pretty consistent. After all, it's carried out by the same people. The John Brennans and David Petraeuses--they worked for these three different presidents.

The significance of Obama's contribution to imperialism was to "rebrand" the empire, as author Anthony Arnove put it in an interview with SocialistWorker.org two years ago:

The Bush administration basically drove a series of foreign policy objectives into cul-de-sacs, which Obama is now trying to extract the United States from--with the goal of pursuing the agenda that Bush had been so ineffective at carrying out, because of the attitude of aggressive and bombastic unilateralism, and a series of miscalculations and misjudgments, especially in his first term...

It's an effort to assert the United States as the indispensable nation in global affairs in a package that will be more acceptable to the traditional allies of U.S. power...to assert a different image and put a different face on the foreign policy objectives of the United States, but without providing any substantive change in the policies.

The Obama administration has certainly not been fully successful in overcoming the problems it inherited from its predecessors. In particular, the escalation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan has not produced anything approaching stability, much less a greater enthusiasm among Afghanis for the U.S. presence. On the contrary, the Taliban-led resistance has grown in strength, and in the U.S., support for the war has steadily eroded amid revelations of atrocities committed by American forces.

But the rebranding of the "war on terror" has succeeded in a number of respects, and the enthusiastic reaction to bin Laden's assassination--especially among liberal voices that were critical of the war under Bush's command--is clear proof.

The U.S. government sent elite assassins into another country, without giving notice to that country's government, to carry out a raid against an almost completely unarmed household, which ended in the cold-bloodeed execution of the target of the raid. This assassination plot has since been used to glorify the assassins, justify the use of torture to extract information that may or may not have had anything to do with the assault, and breathe new life into an atmosphere of fear and scapegoating in the U.S. and abroad.

And many liberals are cheering it on--because Barack Obama, rather than George Bush, gave the order.

No one reading this editorial will mourn the death of Osama bin Laden. He and al-Qaeda stand for a reactionary political agenda, diametrically opposed to socialism, and their violence has almost always claimed victims who bore no responsibility for the crimes of U.S. imperialism.

But bin Laden's killing is being used to polish the image of the "war on terror," which is responsible for destruction on a vastly greater scale than al-Qaeda was capable of. The celebrations of that assassination will strengthen what Martin Luther King called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today": the U.S. war machine.

HOWEVER AND whenever it came, Osama bin Laden's death was certain to produce an outburst of flag-waving and jingoism from the right wing. But the nearly unanimous enthusiasm for his assassination across a spectrum running from liberals to the Tea Party is sure to have discouraged those who oppose war and imperialism.

Of course, bin Laden's killing hasn't suddenly converted most people in the U.S. into gung-ho supporters of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, nor advocates of torture, nor anti-Muslim bigots. In fact, the political impact of the assassination will probably be more short-lived than most commentators expect. Already, the limits of Obama's expected "bump" in popularity were revealed by a gloomy report on unemployment--a far more immediate threat to U.S. workers than al-Qaeda has ever been.

But right-wing supporters of militarism have gotten a boost, as was clear from the crowds that gathered outside the White House, in lower Manhattan, on college campuses and beyond to wave flags and chant with the news of the assassination. The zeal displayed by Democrats and liberal voices will further contribute to a sense among opponents of war that they are isolated.

This is why it's so important to challenge the celebrations of this success for the "war on terror."

Most importantly, all opponents of war and racism need to rally to defend Muslims and Arabs against the worsening bigotry since bin Laden's killing--from vandalism and threats against mosques to the racist treatment of Muslim airline passengers and more. Anti-Muslim abuse and violence is a direct consequence of this assassination, and opponents of war must confront them--all the more so since mainstream political leaders won't.

Beyond this, it's important for activists who want to stop the war machine to be confident to take on patriotism and Islamophobia wherever they find it--on campus, at work, in communities.

What people do now to stand up against the justifications for U.S. wars and violence can give confidence to others to do the same. That's the first step to winning back whatever ground has been gained by supporters of militarism and imperialism--and to rebuilding an antiwar movement that can put an end to U.S. wars and occupations around the world.

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