In their efforts to dump President Trump, many Democrats and other liberal critics of Trump have been recycling the same imperialist ideology that produced him.
In the impeachment hearings, Democrats have accused Trump of withholding military aid to Ukraine to extract personal political favors, thereby compromising efforts to combat “Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian empire,” in the words of House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff.
For many of these same politicians, however, the U.S.’s own crimes of empire are not only unimpeachable, but unacknowledged.
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“For as long as I can remember, U.S. foreign policy has been predicated on advancing … democratic values, notably freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, free fair and open elections, and the rule of law,” declared Democratic committee member Denny Heck. Erased from memory, apparently, is the long U.S. track record of sponsoring foreign military dictatorships, fascist cadres, paramilitary death squads and other forces generally detrimental to “democratic values” around the globe.
Heck’s fellow Democratic congressman, Joaquin Castro, denounced Trump for “pressing another country to engage in corruption” — this being “antithetical to who we are as a nation.” By that standard, the U.S. government has been “un-American” for decades — in fomenting the 1953 Iranian coup with $5.3 million in bribes; facilitating the global illicit trade in heroin since the beginning of the Cold War; funding the notoriously ruthless anti-government Contras in Nicaragua with profits from drugs and arms; and funneling billions of dollars to politically connected contractors in the corrupt post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq, to list just a few of the highlights.
Perhaps most amazingly, Chairman Schiff proclaimed that the U.S., unlike Russia, believes “in a principle of sovereignty of nations where countries [like Ukraine] get to determine their own economic, political, and security alliances.”
On this point, the numbers should be permitted to speak for themselves (unlike the peoples subjected to the U.S.’s “self-determination-enhancing” initiatives): the U.S. has interfered in at least 81 foreign elections, succeeded in overthrowing at least 41 governments in Latin America alone, and currently has military troops operating in 80 different countries.
Tellingly, Trump is under fire for allegedly enabling Russia’s imperialism, and not for his harmful exacerbation of the U.S.’s own imperial project. Trump’s elevation of military spending, escalation of drone warfare, embrace of jingoistic neoconservative ideologues, and entrenchment of domestic mass surveillance have in fact been aided and abetted by Democrats, including many of Trump’s most publicly vociferous detractors.
As 20th-century British Viceroy of India Lord Curzon once remarked of his own supposedly “benevolent” empire, “Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation.”
In the U.S. case, the self-delusional quality of this “faith” is particularly stark against the current context of uprisings and upheavals across regions long abused as the laboratories of American empire — or, as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prefers to call it, “American leadership.”
In Haiti, for example — where the U.S. has been bestowing its “leadership” in the form of military occupations, regime alterations and gross economic exploitation for more than a century — Haitians have been out en masse since last July, protesting the corruption, human rights abuses and anti-poor policies of U.S.-supported president Jovenel Moïse.
In Chile, demonstrators across the country have been braving police bullets, torture and rape to demand transformation of the brutal neoliberal program first shoved down their throats by U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet.
In Venezuela, people continue to resist government takeover efforts by U.S.-endorsed right-wing politician Juan Guaidó — while the U.S. Department of Defense’s Southern Command encourages the Venezuelan military to intervene, and the population suffocates under a U.S.-led sanctions regime so punishing it caused at least 40,000 deaths from 2017 to 2018, according to analysis by economists Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University.
And in Bolivia, the country’s first Indigenous president, socialist Evo Morales, was ousted recently by a deadly far-right military coup, following years of an intensive U.S. campaign to demonize, discredit and destabilize his democratically elected presidency.
In the tradition of imperial newspeak, this latest development was hailed by the White House for bringing the world “one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere” — an assessment legitimized by the whitewashing of the coup across the political spectrum and mainstream U.S. press.
The bipartisan consensus on imperialism was similarly evident in the reaction to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 27.
After the suicide of al-Baghdadi during a U.S. “kill-or-capture” operation in Syria, Democratic Party leaders concurred with Republicans that while al-Baghdadi (like bin Laden before him) may be dead, the threat of terrorism lives on — keeping the perpetual motion machine of the “war on terror” grinding on.
Liberal dissension was largely focused on the crass boastfulness of Trump’s announcement, contrasted unflatteringly with Barack Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden — reducing the problems with the U.S.’s global targeted killing program to the style of the messenger.
“Trump’s tone was marked by overt showmanship” and he “revealed a remarkable level of operational detail about the raid,” critiqued The Washington Post, while “Obama’s measured speech appealed to the enduring strength of America’s values” and “praised intelligence experts and Special Forces.”
The Post neglected to mention that the Special Operations Forces unit “praised” by Obama for dispatching bin Laden, U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, has been implicated in atrocities around the world, including revenge murders, mutilations, civilian massacres and attempted beheadings.
Also omitted was that Obama’s “measured speech” excluded several key details, such as that bin Laden was unarmed and had already been severely wounded and incapacitated before being killed — making the killing a likely war crime, as some international law experts concluded after such details came to light.
In general, the problem with the U.S.’s system of “targeted” killings — responsible for anywhere from 769 to 1,725 civilian deaths from drone strikes, and untold scores more in “kill-or-capture” raids — has not been the revelation of too much information, but far too little. “The total absence of any form of credible transparency … means that the United States cannot possibly satisfy its obligations under international law to ensure accountability for its use of lethal force,” as former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston observed in 2011.
Trump’s major sin, in American exceptionalist eyes, is that his vulgarity has stripped the facade of civility off the naked brutality beneath.
Trump was mocked for turning al-Baghdadi’s death into “the kind of made-for-television presidential moment he has long craved” — as if U.S. military exploits haven’t been constructed as media spectacles since 1986, when President Reagan precisely timed airstrikes on Libya to coincide with prime-time news.
Others, like Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, chided Trump for describing the raid on al-Baghdadi’s compound like a “video game” — as if the institutionalization of drone warfare hadn’t already turned the practice of killing into a grotesque remote-control sport, with drone operators describing their deadly work as “a lot like Play Station” and referring to their marks as “bugsplat.”
In covering the al-Baghdadi raid, U.S. media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN devoted markedly more attention to the bravery of the non-human hero Conan the military dog than to the abject dehumanization of prisoners at the U.S. military detention centers where the terrors of ISIS were incubated. Al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca in Iraq, where detainees were beaten, tormented with live scorpions, paraded naked, piled in nude pyramids, and forced to bark like dogs and proclaim their love for George W. Bush.
This is not to exonerate Trump, but to reject the desire to label him exceptional; not to excuse his bloody presidency, but to situate it in the long trail of blood running through U.S. imperial history — a past largely erased from the slate of hegemonic memory (although not from the memories of those whose “open veins,” as the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it, still bleed).
But instead of questioning the apparatus of domination, many Trump critics have doubled down on valorizing it. “The death of the Islamic State’s leader in a daring nighttime raid vindicated the value of three traditional American strengths: robust alliances, faith in intelligence agencies and the projection of military power around the world,” as one New York Times columnist exulted.
Sustained by the type of myth-making on display in the impeachment hearings, the imperial fantasy of endless war for perpetual peace continues to thrive — in stark contrast to the world trapped in its spiral of carnage.