So, what did Obama not tell us in his national security speech?
Most conspicuous by its absence from the new Obama Doctrine was any mention of climate change.
We should not be surprised by its exclusion. At the Copenhagen Climate Conference, Obama waited till the end to avoid any effort to significantly address the issue. At Durban, the only change was that Obama had his representatives undermine the conference from the beginning. Despite what he may say in a State of the Union Address, Obama by his actions supports Wall Street and the energy conglomerates in continuing to pursue profits at the price of despoiling and destroying the planet. That climate change is already a factor in world conflicts and promises to be a key driver of future wars, fundamentally threatening both US and world security, merited nary a word in his May 23rd presentation.
When Obama referred to “natural disasters like the recent tornados that devastated Oklahoma,” any possible mention that Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, last summer’s drought, or a long list of other “100 Year “climate events might be related to climate change would have been taboo. On this count alone, Obama’s effort to set forth a new national security doctrine was a non-starter.
Obama described his response to terrorism as involving “a battle of ideas.” Exactly so. And also missing from his speech was any reference to what Chalmers Johnson has defined as blowback. There was a reference to how conventional military options can “unleash a torrent of unintended consequences,” but there was no inkling that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, unconditional support for Israel’s terrible treatment of the Palestinians – other points could be added to the list – how these actions have served to undermine our country’s security by creating more and more enemies. “Violence is as American as apple pie,” observed H. Rap Brown, and why should we be surprised when the victims of American violence respond in kind? How is it that even as more and more al Qaeda are killed, more and more crop up? For all the sense of gravitas and thoughtfulness our president conveys, when it comes to the impact that empire (a word also missing from his address) has on national security, Obama is silent.
In my class, I recommend that students take whatever our leaders or the corporate mainstream media say and flip it around to get closer to the truth. In this case, the policies Obama proposes in service of national security will in fact make us more insecure. Among the measures that would in fact make our country – and the world – more secure would be cessation of the pursuit of empire in service of the major corporations, banks, and other components of the military-industrial-academic complex, major cuts to the obscene Pentagon budget, and reduction of those billions in expenditures that contribute to the death and the destruction of the planet, rather than to our well being and the common good.
Obama did refer to our spending “over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home.” Would that he changed course and took us in the direction of truly making the world a safer place. Obama spoke of the desirability of increasing foreign aid. Yes, but he failed to mention that a preponderance of such aid is spent on weapons purchases and that the largest recipient of foreign aid is Israel, where the bombs they drop on Gaza say Made in the USA.
The Absence of Key Questions
When Medea Benjamin courageously interrupted Obama with questions about the release of Guantanamo detainees, about the killing of 16-year-old Abdulhahman al-Awlaki, about telling Muslims that their lives are as precious as ours, about taking the drones out of CIA hands, about stopping signature strikes, about apologizing to and compensating the thousands of Muslims he has killed, she was – as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out – asking the kind of questions the White House Press Corps to its shame has failed to ask.
Obama emphasized that “America’s actions are legal,” that “this is a just war,” and that no US citizen can be killed – “with a drone or with a shotgun – without due process.” Obama is a constitutional law expert, so we need to assume that he is knowledgeable about this subject. Yet his claim that Congress “authorized the use of force” fudges the point. The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war, a power it has failed to assume in all recent wars. But much more glaring and outrageous is his subsequent claim that the US is currently fighting a “just war.” He first proffered this claim in his Nobel Prize Speech, misappropriating and distorting Martin Luther King. “War,” much less a “just war,” refers to a conflict where there are armies, even guerilla armies such as in Vietnam. Where is al Qaeda’s army, then or now? In addition, Obama’s summary of just war theory (“a war waged proportionately, in last resort and in self-defense”), all of these measures fail when applied to the US and al Qaeda, starting with the invasion of Iraq which had nothing to do with al Qaeda.
As for not killing any US citizen without due process, the last time I checked due process involves going into a court of law, presenting evidence, and allowing the accused – presumed innocent till proven guilty – to defend himself. If this happened with Anwar Awlaki, I must have missed it. What we have instead of due process is its opposite, a kangaroo court chaired by Obama in his Tuesday targeting sessions. And the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by Bush and renewed by Obama, effectively negates habeas corpus, central to western law since King John signed Magna Carta.
While disputing the casualty figures, Obama admitted that “it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war.” That this is part of a “war,” we have already questioned. More significantly, the evidence is that there is no such thing as a drone strike that does not involve what is euphemistically referred to as collateral damage (even assuming that the targeted person was in fact a terrorist). Therefore, every time Obama orders a drone assassination, he is deliberately killing innocent bystanders, as well as inciting their relatives, friends, and others to attack us in retaliation.
Violence Solves Problems
And this raises a still larger issue. When the residents of Newton CT or Boston MA or other communities visited by violence ask about the motives of the perpetrators and say they did not think it could happen here, well, why should they be surprised when we regularly witness our leaders (be they Bush, Obama, or others) model the principle that violence solves problems? If Obama wants to increase national security, he might begin by looking in the mirror. And better than being “haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he might begin providing for the millions of refugees created by those conflicts and paying reparations to them for the enormous destruction we have wrought.
Obama also cited the need of “patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya….” The historical record is replete with examples of US support for dictators who served our interests (Egypt’s Mubarak, for example) and of overthrows of democratically elected leaders who did not. Most recently we supported overthrows in Honduras and Paraguay, and an attempted overthrow in Venezuela. And before Obama can talk about democracy abroad, he might support efforts to repeal Citizens United and shift from plutocracy to democracy here at home.
Language and Nuclear Weapons
Another point I present to students is the importance of being vigilant about the use of language. Orwell classically diagnosed how Big Brother controls the populace through the Ministry of Fear and the manipulations of Double Speak. The list of terms that might be addressed here would be lengthy, but let’s add to “security” all the references to “terrorism” in Obama’s address. If we define the term as involving the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, yes, this applies to al Qaeda and its affiliates. But we cannot stop there. We know that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, el.al. took the country to war based on lies. This makes them war criminals, makes the Iraq War an exercise in terrorism, and makes the United States a rogue state.
Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich is a formulation that can begin to put current affairs in a different perspective. In addition to the wars if Iraq and Afghanistan and the drone strikes constituting acts of terrorism, in addition to the US and Israel being the leading terrorist states, let’s also talk about nuclear weapons, another topic missing from the Obama Doctrine. If terrorism is the deliberate targeting of the innocent, then nuclear weapons are obviously weapons of terror, and whenever Obama or other US leaders say that “all options are on the table” (code for everything including the nuclear option), they are engaging in terrorist threats. And when Israel seeks to protect its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, it is seeking to preserve its monopoly over the ultimate terrorist weapon. Thus another component of a true national security policy should be the creation of a nuclear-free Middle East, withdrawing the Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf, and denuclearizing Israel. Along the way, this would go a long way toward diffusing tensions with Iran.
Whether it be Osama bin Laden, the Tsarnaev brothers, or the London killers of the British soldier, we should lend credence to their pronouncements when they state what motivated them. As terrible as their actions are, Americans and others need to understand that they are speaking for many people who have major grievances against our country and who are willing to pursue vengeance in response. Obama stated that another element in his national security strategy involved “addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” But the more Obama and our leaders continue to create enemies, the more they make it likely that there will be another September 11th – the exact opposite of what he was telling the American public his policies would achieve.
Why All the Secrecy?
When Obama spoke of “our proud commitment to civil liberties” as an introduction to his discussion of dealing with “national security leaks,” he put his finger on a key element of the maintenance of the national security state as it pursues its agenda of war and empire. To maintain this undertaking, secrecy is a necessity in order to conceal the Orwellian contradiction at the heart of US actions. Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, and other whistleblowers must be prosecuted, and Julian Assange must be pursued and secretly indicted in order to intimidate others who might want to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Ellsberg. Journalists for the mainstream corporate media self-censor, realizing that if they ask questions like Medea Benjamin’s, they will be out of a job. Why has the number of secrecy classifications, already unprecedentedly high under Bush, continued to mushroom under Obama? What is he trying to hide?
When Obama said to Medea Benjamin, “Now, this is part of free speech, is your being able to speak, but also you listening and me being able to speak. All right?” it was not all right. Those who speak truth to power do not get to speak to presidents. Pretending that exchanges such as took place between Benjamin and himself occur, much less are commonplace, is risible. And the only reason the exchange was as lengthy as it was is because Benjamin backed off the Secret Service by saying she would start screaming if they touched her and that they did not want that on national TV.
Of the many other points on which Obama might be called, I will mention only two. When Obama referred to “all the wounded warriors rebuilding their lives,” he might also have reconsidered the VA’s disgraceful policy of reclassifying veterans as having personality disorders, threatening them with prosecution and having them otherwise lose their benefits so that the government does not have to pay the long term costs of treating their PTSD and other injuries. Along with caring for all the wounded and disabled Iraqis and Afghans, he might also care for our own men and women who were told that they had been serving their country.
And finally there was the de rigeur “May God bless the United States of America.” Along with the issue of separation of church and state, why would any god want to bless the depredations of empire? The invocation of the myths of the City on the Hill and of American Exceptionalism is designed to evoke the knee-jerk reactions of most Americans to those deep- seated outlooks.
But for Americans who are seeking true national security, the Lord will help those who help themselves. Rejecting the false bill of goods being offered them in the Obama Doctrine and focusing instead on the key factors absent from his address opens the path to true security. The course we have been and continue to pursue leads not just to the fall of the American Empire, but the likelihood that we, Samson-like, will blindly pull the temple down on our heads and cause untold death and destruction to others.
Thank you Medea Benjamin for courageously injecting a note of reality into the broadcast. The emperor has no clothes.