• "God invented war so Americans could learn geography" -- Mark Twain.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Wolf Hiding under Tufts of Wool

Obama read a speech yesterday which is being billed as a signaling a “shift” in foreign policy.  Nonsense.  As we have said before, “Empires do not go Swiss.”  United States’ strategies may change but its goals remain the same as they have been since 2001 and, in fact, since 1947. 

But even on the level of strategies, Obama’s speech was a mere matter of packaging; and, as to packaging, it was more of the same, treacly, homiletic, sentimentalism for which this president surely deserves a prize.

Larded between what was supposedly the announcement of a new “leaner” and more “muscular” strategy was such fat as: “a world where school-girls are not kidnapped;”  “where the aspirations of individual human beings matter” and  “where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history ... to do what is right and just.”

Ah yes!  No Obama speech would be complete without some reference to our Seminal Founding Document.Tonight we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation ... ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men...” (2004)  “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; ... that noble idea... the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” (2009)   “We recall that what binds this nation together ... What makes us exceptional is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration....” (2013)  Yawn. Yawn. Yawn.

For all that, Obama’s text warrants analysis to see how things remain the same and to understand the fundamentals on which plus ├ža change are predicated.

Historical Preliminaries.

It has been tritely said that those who fail to grasp history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them.  It would more accurately said that those who fail to grasp the past cannot understand the present.

Part of the Exceptionalist Cant, which Obama effusively reaffirmed at the Academy (“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”), is the notion that, arriving on these Virgin Shores, animated by religious conscience, “pilgrim feet  with stern, impassioned stress, a thoroughfare for freedom beat  across the wilderness!" (America the Beautiful)  And ever beating for freedom threw off the yoke of a Mad Tyrant who did Awful Things.

Again nonsense. The animating spirit of the country was gain.  Once commercially viable enterprises had established themselves on the coast, the Colonists looked west on French & Indian lands which they coveted and the Crown's protection of which was one of the chief grievances listed in our Seminal Document. 

As the Count of Aranda wrote to King Charles III of Spain in 1783: “This Federated Republic is born, shall we say, a pygmy  ... But tomorrow, as it consolidates its constitution, it will be a giant; and after that it will become an irresistible colossus in those regions.”  (Memorandum from the Count  of Aranda to  His  Majesty King Charles III on the Independence  of  the  English  Colonies  in  America.)

Aranda understood the social and political strengths of the new-born pygmy (among which he listed the advantages of religious pluralism, heretical and sinful as that might be). But he also understood the socio-economic “DNA” of the pygmy which demanded imperialist growth.  He understood that unless Spain took effective measures (which it failed to do), the pygmy would “gobble up” the Floridas, Mexico and Spanish possessions in the hemisphere (which it did).

In fact, after Pilgrim Feet had tramped to the end of the continent, they beat across the waves, where the Great White Fleet blasted the wild, impassioned natives in the wilderness over there into civility and freedom.

Was there ever a time when the United States was not at war with somebody?  Even the Civil War was a war over preferred modes of economic expansion.  Present day Americans are not ignorant of these conflicts  -- with Spain, Canada, Britain, Mexico, Canada (again) Spain (again) -- they just don't see them for what they are.  In the 19th Century, American policy makers were not embarrassed to speak of “Empire.”  They crowed about it.  After all, everyone else was.  Why not us? 

But Woodrow Wilson was a prudish Presbyterian. Wilson felt more comfortably righteous decking out “Manifest Destiny” in terms of waging a war for peace and freedom.  “Making the World Safe for Democracy”  he called it. But this was just packaging.  It only fooled Americans.  As French president Georges Clemenceau put it, “Wilson speaks like Jesus Christ, but acts like Lloyd George.”

Although U.S. geo-economic interests were closely identified with British, the central aim of each country's policy was to prevent the emergence of a “strong central European power” and to undermine or contain regimes whose aims might be viewed as inimical to their financial or industrial capital.

Americans tend to slide gracefully over the fact that Mr. Safe-for-Democracy invaded Mexico and Nicaragua to depose regimes he did not like and a few years later invaded Russia to depose the Bolsheviks there. Making the world “safe for democracy” was code for making it “hospitable to U.S. economic interests.” 

Nothing changed in the sequel to the Great War.  Although there are those for whom it is convenient to play up the myth of a moral crusade, A.J.P. Taylor, the well known British historian, had it right when he chalked up the World War (2nd) to a struggle for economic hegemony. (The Origins of the Second World War (1961).)

As Taylor put it: “No matter what political reasons are given for war, the underlying reason is always economic.

In fact, the White House Jesus did not disagree. “Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here, that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?”  (President Woodrow Wilson, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.)

Empires are indeed about “values” but the values at issue are profit and plunder (called “peace and prosperity”) and these are decked out in the tissues of freedom, democracy and family unity.  The American Empire was forged under the banner of “Free Trade” at home and abroad. At home and abroad, it was the mantra of the 18th century Liberal class allied against the “oppression” of feudalism and government control — that is, against economies tied in some measure to concepts of obligation.

Containment & Zones of Democratic Freedom

In 1945, the pygmy turned colossus stood astride a blasted and impoverished world. France, which had been spared physical devastation, was so impoverished that its tin franc weighed as much as a foil-wrapped “coin” of bubblegum.

Only Argentina had gold reserves worth counting; and those were puny compared to what the United States commanded.  Suddenly there no enemy left!

It was an intolerable situation and the United States was quick to discover a New Bete Noire to crusade against: a country which had lost 20 million of its citizens, whose two major cities had been pulverized and whose European half consisted of charred fields and desolate rubble.

In 1947, George F. Kennan proposed and the United States officially adopted the policy of “containment”.  It would build an iron cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union while simultaneously seeking to establish “zones of democratic freedom” in “un-affiliated” areas of the world.  These “zones” were the ol’ Fort Apache in Injun Territory, trucked out on a global scale. They were comprised of client states “tied” to us by “democratic values” and  “free trade” as backed up by “financial assistance” (loan indebtedness to the I.M.F.) and/or “military assistance and support” (as in U.S. trained Guatemalan death squads).

Truman Announcing His Doctrine

Democratic values” did not refer to those honeyed sentiments conjured up by our Seminal Founding Document but rather to juridical concepts and mechanism which protected private property, investment, free-trade and un-free copyright. 

Containment” was also a likely euphemism.  Its ultimate aim, said Kennan, was “to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” (Foreign Affairs, X-Article, 1947.)

In so saying, Kennan went beyond “resisting Soviet aggression” (the favorite slogan of the Fifties) and was clearly indicating the gradual and indirect roll-back and subversion of the Soviet Union.

Like Monopoly, a key element of the roll-back was the gradual constriction of soviet power by economic and military means short of conventional war. The battle for the hearts, minds and resources of non-allied nations (i.e. the “third world”) was a question a “securing and extending” zones “tied” to the U.S. order of things.

Not unexpectedly, the Soviet Union did not take all this lying down. It pushed back and sought to set up its own zones of “popular democracy.”  But “tu quoque” does not mean “non sumus”.  That the Soviet Union might have been doing it too, does not mean that the U.S. wasn’t doing it at all; and, once the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States continued to do it.

Full Spectrum Preeminence

Forty five years from and after 1945, the United States faced the same dilemma:  the Soviet Union collapsed; USA  had won.  No one was left.  What was to be done with its vast military-industrial complex?  Just as importantly, what  was to be done with resources that were now up for grabs?  The United States re-fitted Containment into a policy of ongoing unilateral war against “potential enemies.”

The importance of conditional terminology to what has been labelled "neocon" doctrine cannot be stressed enough.  Simply put, American policy was no longer a fight against a perceived and actual opponent, it was a fight against a non-existent one.  The mere potential to cause a threat (i.e. a potential harm) to the United States, was stated to be a casus belli. 

The essentials of post-soviet U.S. policy were “power projection” to “preserve American preeminence” and advance American “principles and interests” by “securing and extending zones of democratic peace,” and “removing the Homeland’s security perimeter eastward,” using short-term ad hoc alliances without long-term commitments, backed up by a flexible military consisting of full force conventional strength on the one hand and specialized, civil-military units, on the other, with their own intelligence and agit-prop capabilities whose soldiers would be “equipped with skin patch pharmaceuticals.” 

All of these quoted buzz-words and concepts are taken from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s 1992 Defense Planning Guide  [1] or the P.N.A.C’s 2000 Rebuilding America’s Defenses [2], later rolled into George Bush’s 2002 National Security Policy of the United States.  [3]   In capsulated form, they summarize the essentials of the neocon retrofitting of post-war American policy.

The immediately perceived zonal conflicts were: the Balkans,  “South West Asia” (i.e., the Middle East) and ultimately China.

But the Russian bugbear was never far from neocon minds. In his  Grand Chessboard (1997) Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed Kennan and announced that “The defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union was the final step in the rapid ascendance of a Western Hemisphere power, the United States, as the sole and, indeed, the first truly global power..."  (p. xiii)  Nevertheless, he said, “it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America. " (Ibid. p xiv.)    

Dick Cheney’s Defense Planning Guide was somewhat more nuanced,

"We do not dismiss the risks to stability in Europe from a nationalist backlash in Russia ...  [However, for the foreseeable future], the continued fragmentation of the former Soviet state and its conventional armed forces have neutralized a Russian threat."
Nevertheless "our strategy must refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor"
 "The  best means of assuring that no hostile power is able to consolidate control over the resources within the former Soviet Union is to support its successor states (especially Russia and Ukraine) in their efforts to become peaceful democracies with market based economies.  ... to demilitarize their societies, convert their military industries to civilian production, ... radically reduce their nuclear weapons...”  
These quotes illustrate that the core of U.S. geopolitical policy is an inverse correlation between the United States and everyone else, particularly including Russia and, next, China. The policy is directed not at actual enemies but at any potential rival.  The essential idea is that in order for us to be “up” everyone else must be kept “down.”   It is  American Exceptionalism with a vengeance

As for Russia, if it could be reduced to a de-facto client state “with market based economies” which allowed Western control over the resources within the Russo-Asian land mass, fine and dandy.  If not the cat would have to be skinned by other means.

Nominally speaking, neocon policy passed from containment to breakup. But as I have already indicated, “containment” was always a euphemism.  Neocon doctrine simply continued the logic and dynamic of containment.  

These same quotations also illustrate that the distinction between “liberals” and “neo-cons” is utterly spurious.  The sole difference between the two is simply one of tone.  The actual policies advocated are the same.

It is true that the U.S. foreign policy establishment was “divided” over whether containment was limited to countering Soviet advances at various “flash points” or whether it included a full or partial economic and/or military roll-back of the Soviet Union. But this “division” was a semantic distinction without any ultimate difference. To speak of “tendencies [i.e. strategies] which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power” is to posit the diminution of any rival in favor of U.S. preeminence. 

Given that rivals come in all shapes, sizes and circumstances, American responses to these potential rivalries must likewise be encompassed within a full spectrum range of military-economic-political options and mechanisms.  In concept and substance this had been U.S. policy prior to 1992 and it remained U.S. policy thereafter.

Taking the long view, U.S. policy, from the founding of the nation, has been “liberal” — that it is, it has espoused juridical and political structures which protect private property and promote free trade.  But trade necessarily includes trade across borders with parties in other countries.   Liberalism necessarily strives for expansion and implicates globalism. 

To speak of “neo-liberalism” is to say no more than that U.S. policy has remained fundamentally liberal: grounded in “free trade”  by the economically privileged.   Nothing has changed because that it was what empires are about.   Neo-conservatism was simply bluster and swollen military budgets in service of the same underlying goals.

All Empires exalt their material interests in the loftiest of sentiments. To say as much is not to excuse us from understanding what drives the United States but, on the contrary, to focus on “what any child” must surely understand.

I do not mean to suggest that the United States has no redeeming qualities or that ordinary Americans are devoid of those altruistic sentiments and praiseworthy endeavors common to all men.  But any political diagnosis worth the name must ascertain the true causes and essential characteristics of the subject in question.  America set out to be, was and will remain an Empire until the end. 

Sicut Erat in Principio:  Obama’s Four Points

In 2004, an up and coming young politician from Illinois, took to the podium of the Democratic Convention to loftily intone that “out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.”  One might have be forgiven for thinking that Obama was hearkening to an emergence from the darkness of Cheney-Bush bluster, aggression, lies, tortures and subversion of civil rights. 

But if one used the tools of the English language to parse what Obama was saying — i.e. if one listened carefully to the teleprompter text — it became clear that Obama was merely intoning a change of tissues.  He never actually specified what “political darkness” referred to.  He might equally have meant emerging from the shock and grief and trauma of experiencing some blow-back from the non-exceptional part of the world.

In the aftermath of 2001, Americans were in the mood for belligerence.  Bush happily obliged the heehaw animus that always lurks beneath the thin surface of Puritan do-goodism.  American policy became decked out in bragging and bully-tones.  Obama, offered blarney instead.  As we wrote, on the morrow of his election in 2008,

A neo-con is simply a neo liberal gone punk.  Domestically and diplomatically Obama will provide some emollients and better manners, but I doubt little else.  He may take a few paltry steps towards realizing  Bismarckian social benefits and he may go back to an Eisenhoweresque diplomacy of working "through" allies and international institutions.  

And so it has been.

Now, a little over a year away from being an official Lame Duck, Obama supposedly “resets” American foreign policy. That anyone (including the New York Times) should believe such nonsense would be laughable were it not so pathetic.

Once the historical background is taken into account, Obama’s speech can be parsed for the soggy pancake it is.   Like the huckster he has always been, Obama has simply repackaged the same ol’ same ol’.  But in doing so, he has inadvertently admitted that the Empire is in its deceitful decline.

Addressing the  newly minted Second Lieutenants of the United States Army, Obama enunciated four points.

1.    The United States, Obama said, reserves the right to use force  “unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.”

This statement was an almost laughable no-brainer.  What state does not “reserve the right” to “unilaterally” defend itself when it is attacked?  Such a right is the principal attribute of sovereignty. 

But Obama's neo-con speech writers subtly massaged the text. “Threatened” refers to a potential not to the actuality of an attack or some harm.  “At stake” is similarly equivocal.  In using these terms Obama merely reiterated the Cheney-PNAC doctrine of unilateral response against perceived potential harm to our interests (whatever those interests might be). 

2.    Obama then announced that, for the foreseeable future, “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.”  He called for a “shift [in] our counter-terrorism strategy” so as to “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

Once again, Obama fell back on near laughable but nonetheless obfuscating sophistries.  First off, he never defined “terrorism” which (as a result) serves as an empty variable for all occasions.  From that amorphous non-point his “shift” glided lightly over the inconsistency between a “direct threat” to the homeland and nefarious “networks” seeking a foothold in far away countries. 

How in the world do a supposed bunch of guys with AK-47s and bombs in the jungles of wherever pose a “direct threat” to the United States Homeland?  They don’t, unless “homeland” is redefined so as to include resources in far away places and the effect “at home” of loosing unimpeded access to those resources.  Once again, bananas and oil.

In fact, the Pentagon has done precisely that in its National Infrastructure Protection Plan, of February 2009, authorised by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7.  

The Patriot Act (2001) defines "critical infrastructure" as "systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States [that] the incapacitation or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety or any combination [thereof].”

Implementing the Act, the February 2009 NIPP directive lists three pages of “critical” resources and infrastructures in all five continents, such as: “Congo (Kinshasa): Cobalt (Mine and Plant)  ... Australia Manganese - Battery grade,  ... China: C2C Cable Network undersea cable landing, Chom Hom Kok .... Austria: Immune Globulin Intravenous (IGIV) Octapharma Pharmazeutika, Vienna, Austria  ...Denmark: Smallpox Vaccine Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals, Inc.  ... Germany: Critical to the production of mortars TDW-Gasellschaft Wirksysteme, Schroebenhausen, Germany  ... Djibouti: Bab al-Mendeb: Shipping lane is a critical supply chain node ... Tunisia: Trans-Med Gas Pipeline ...Kazakhstan: Ferrochromium Khromtau Complex, Kempersai, (Chromite Mine) India: Orissa (chromite mines) ... Russia: Novorossiysk Export Terminal Primorsk Export Terminal. Nadym Gas Pipeline Junction: The most critical gas facility in the world  ....”

Simply put, the whole world is our “critical homeland.”  Obama’s “strategy shift” is nothing more than a call to pursue the same policy more “effectively” by “partnering” with countries that have what we want.  But this is no different than “partnering” with Pinochet (copper) or the Shah (oil).

3.    Moving to a higher plane, Obama’s  third principle of American leadership was to “strengthen and enforce international order.... from NATO and the United Nations, to the World Bank and IMF.”  Although concededly imperfect, he said,  “these institutions have been a force multiplier.”

In so arguing, Obama simply extended neo-con military doctrine into the economic sphere.  Rebuilding America’s Defenses (2000), advocated “partnering” with host countries in the following terms:

“[F]orward operating bases can range from relatively modest agreements with other nations as well as modest improvements to existing facilities and bases. ... Such installations would be a “force multiplier” in power projection operations, as well as help solidify political and security ties with host nations.”  (Ibid, p. 20.)
The critical question here is “force multiplier” for what?  Answer: for the purpose of “securing and extending” zones of democratic freedom, which is to say, a force multiplier in advancing unchallenged American preeminence, zone by democratic zone.   Obama’s third point explicitly applies the “force multiplier” principle to financial and diplomatic institutions: the United Nations as forward diplomatic base and the I.M.F., as financial power projection. 

But even this is nothing really new. Since Bretton Woods, it has been no secret that the World Bank, the I.M.F. and “economic development” NGOs were strategic tools in advancing U.S. (corporate) interests.

4.    Obama’s first three points grandiloquently culminated in a fourth, which he declared was “our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity. America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism – it’s a matter of national security.  Democracies are our closest friends, and are far less likely to go to war. Free and open economies perform better, and become markets for our goods."

A greater heap of tautological tinsel is hard to imagine. Since “democracy” and “human rights” are code-words for liberal political-economies, countries that protect private property and open themselves to investment are obviously our “friends” and just as obviously become markets four our goods and  perform better for the one percent.

Needless to say, Obama skipped over the  fact that “open economies” also open their resources to U.S. “investment” and “harvesting”.

He likewise side-stepped the problem that western economies are far from performing better for ordinary people, in case anyone might have noticed.

Similarly, Obama leaped over the glaring issue of whether “friendship” trumped “democracy” as in the case of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait.  Whatever the case, it is sufficient to believe that whatever we do we do so “on behalf of human dignity.”

In sum, Obama’s new policy speech was such a pathetic rehash that it did not even measure up to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It was more like a wolf sporting a few tufts of wool on its ears.

Cats Escaping the Bag

Nevertheless, Obama’s speech did make some telling admissions about the present day execution of the policy.

In discussing point three, Obama observed that sending American troops overseas tended to “stretch thin” our military capacities and “stir up local resentments.”  Rather than go broke playing the Ugly American, it was cheaper and more effective to train the locals to do the dirty work.  He therefore announced a  “new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”

So saying, Obama disclosed that, in line with this partnering policy, “we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police” — a huge number bearing in mind that the total number of police officers in the United States amounts to 706,000.   Evidently “partnering” includes the creation and funding of client armies to do the fighting for us with the added benefit being that the locals will hate our mercenaries rather than us, directly.

Anyone thinking that these “partnerships” spanning the globe will cost a mere five billion dollars is not living in the real world.  Perhaps, Obama was thinking of the recently disclosed five billion spent on “assistance” and “partnerships” in the Ukraine. 

Even so, five plus billions is less than the daily-billions it takes to deploy carrier groups and air-lifted troops.  Obama’s Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund is all but a frank acknowledgement that the Empire is broke.

Hardly a surprise. The millennium began with a massive multi-trillion dollar giveaway of public wealth to the makers and droppers of bombs, which has now all gone up in smoke. [4]  In tandem, another trillion dollars or so was returned to the wealthiest two percent of the country in tax cuts [5] while corporations who took in more than states and countries in revenues paid no taxes at all.  And all this was followed by massive give-aways and “easings” in favor of global financial institutions, including (it is seldom reported) foreign banks.   No wonder the Empire is forced to speak of a “leaner” more “muscular” policy.

But a return to infiltration, subversion and vassal armies is nothing new.   Obama's "reset" is nothing more than an admission that Eisenhower's "partnering" with the Guatemala Junta to "eradicate" the Maya terrorists was more cost-effective than Wilson's "sending in the Marines." 

Obama’s second admission involved Syria and the acknowledgement that one of our key strategies is to stir up trouble so as to afford ourselves an excuse to intervene through our “partners” in the United Nations, NATO or the I.M.F. 

“A critical focus of this [partnering] effort,” Obama said,  “will be the ongoing crisis in Syria.”  He promised to “ work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.

Ramp up support for the Syrian opposition?  This, no less, on the day after it was disclosed that the U.S. has in fact been training and equipping the so-called grassroots rebels in Syria, despite all its previous sanctimonious denials.

In other words, the Obama Doctrine calls for a yet lower spectrum of full spectrum dominance called “astro-turfing  — the use of civilian NGO’s, students, muhadjeen, skinheads or any ostensibly “grass-roots” assortment of patsies to serve as disruptive wedges for our interests.

To be sure, the United States has always used “affiliated” trade and academic organizations to promote its interests in foreign countries.  In fact, so long as it remains truly civil and peaceful, it is fair game in the ongoing jockeying for influence that passes for “international relations.”  Kennedy’s vaunted Alliance for Progress was a fairly benign example of the technique.

But that is not what Obama's policy makers are envisioning.  In Syria, as in the Ukraine and Venezuela, they envision stirring up “peaceful” protests and turmoil which by seemingly natural degrees escalate into violent confrontation and civil war, the disaster and disruption of which then afford us an excuse to sanctimoniously intervene to make the country “safe for democracy” through more direct forms of military and economic intervention.

Obama’s announced “support for democracy and human rights” and the “international rule of law” is, like almost everything this man says, a blatant canard.

Let it be borne in mind that Syria (as Libya, Iraq and Venezuela) is a sovereign country.   One might not like a foreign country’s political system or way of life, but the whole point of national sovereignty is that the internal affairs of one country are no one else’s business.

Suddenly, in Obama’s “new” international order, Syria’s internal affairs are our business.  We get to arm rebels in a sovereign nation, and then once all hell breaks loose restore law and order coupled with regime change.  This is why Obama avoided defining “terrorism.”  To do so would have ripped the fig leaf from his obscenity.

By definition a “terrorist” is a non-state actor.  He is a person who resorts to violence for some supposed political end but who has no political or judicial authority employ force or violence.  That is why anarchist bombers and rebels are and always have been considered criminals. A person who takes up arms or blows up buildings in order to destabilize a recognized and legitimate government (as Assad’s in Syria or Yanukovitch’s in the Ukraine) is a terrorist.   A dictator, brutal as he might be, is not a "terrorist." 

And so, Obama’s Grand Policy Shift which began with a clarion call to “partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold”  ended with a call to foment, arm and support terrorists in order to give them a foothold in Syria.  

Such cynicism is simply sociopathic.

The Greatest Cynicism of All

At least as cynical as Obama’s shuffle over “terrorism” was his once-again reliance on the Just War doctrine, which was slipped in on the back of a conjunction in his first point.

Attentive readers will have noticed that Obama’s first point reserved the right to use first when “our core interests demand it .... or when the security of our allies is in danger.”

Not only did Obama undertake to defend others but he undertook to do so merely when our these un-named allies were “in danger” — that is, not when they were actually attacked, but when there was some assertable  "threat" to their amorphously considered “security.”

Thus, the “core” of Obama’s “leaner” more focused policy was the naked assertion that we reserved the right to do whatever we damned well pleased for whomever and whatever we wanted. 

It is a “core” technique of sophistry to conjoin two not-necessarily connected things by means of an “and” or an “or” so that they either become equated in the listener’s mind or so that natural and self-evident acceptance of the first spills over into a not self-evident acceptance of the second.  It was in this way that Obama’s first point was nothing less than an open-ended invitation to unilateral interventionism at will anywhere.   It could fool only those who willingly wanted to be fooled.

But this sophistry was simply the nutshell for the meat of a more hoary one — one that is relied upon by all aggressors and makers of war.

At Oslo, in 2009, showing off the patina of liberal education for which Obama’s speech writers are famous, Obama “averted” to the doctrine of Just War, which (in true Cliff Notes fashion) he attributed to St. Augustine.

The press was effusive in its admiration for Obama’s erudition.  The pages and air-waves were filled with pronouncements on medieval doctrines most people had only vaguely heard of (if at all) and really could have cared less about.

It was all stuff and nonsense.  St Augustine never advocated a Just War doctrine.  Cicero did. But Cicero’s Just War doctrine was just as much a pile of high-sounding fluff as anything Obama has ever said.  According to Cicero, a just war must have a just cause and must be waged justly (i.e. with moderation and restraint as in not raping women and slaughtering children).  That indeed is the tautological sum and substance of it.

To give Cicero some credit, his advocacy of “just wars” was a step up from the rampaging plunder and slaughter which then passed for Roman foreign policy.  But all it really meant, in practice, was that the Senate or the Caesars should come up with some reasonable sounding pretext to whatever they were about, and that they should, as Obama said, not appear to “flout international norms and the rule of law.”

Christians, however, were on record as opposing all war. Like Socrates, the Christian motto was very simply that it was better to suffer evil than to commit it.  And killing was evil whether “justified” or not.

Needless to say, this extreme pacifism conflicted with certain normal animal-human instincts and it certainly embarrassed the actions and alternatives available to the emperors once they became Christians.  Fourth and Fifth century bishops made squirming equivocal noises and for the most part dealt with the dilemma by punting and looking the other way.

However, the embarrassment became acute when Muslim armies advanced on Constantinople in 851 and demanded its surrender.  The Caliph Mutawakkil (no uneducated man) reminded the Christian emissaries, that as followers of Christ they were pledged to pacifism and, it followed, obliged to open the gates to his entry.  After all the Almighty Who ruleth all, had obviously willed it.

Oh what to do? What to do?  The Constantinopolians were foisted on their own petard, until a man called Cyril Constantine stepped forward with a solution.

“It is of course,” he said, “forbidden for a Christian to defend himself!  As Christ, and as for ourselves, we must  follow the Cross even unto death, as meekly as lambs, if that be the Father’s will for us.  BUT! it is salutary, commendable and holy to sacrifice ourselves in defense of others.  We are not (perish the thought) saving our own prideful and sinful skins, but are rather martyring ourselves for the sake of the meek, the weak, the widowed and the orphaned.  And so, it is our bounden Christian duty, as Christ laid down his life for us, for us to lay down our lives resisting you to the utmost, each of us defending not himself but his neighbor!!”  (As paraphrased, see Theandros: An Online Journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy Vol. 2, No 3,  Spring 2005.)

The war was on and Cyril-Constantine was declared a saint.

Of course, it was a pure sophistical equivocation between the one and the many, which shuffled the fact that the “collective us” were still defending the “collective us” and were thus — collectively — doing exactly what was forbidden.

Nevertheless, sacrifice in defense of others, has become the just and standard pretext to rush to the slaughter  to  rescue widows and virgins in Jerusalem (Crusades) or to support aspiring freedom fighters in Syria.   Plus ca change. 

As ultimately evolved, the Just War doctrine of the Catholic and Orthodox churches imposes stringent preconditions and pre-requisites prior to a resort to force which must be absolutely necessary and unavoidable. But, at West Point as in Oslo, Obama’s Cliff Notes version,  dispensed with all of that technical stuff and proffered a mere rehash of Ciceronian rhetoric, the upshot of which is the United States reserves the right to go to war for it self or on behalf of others as it sees fit, provided it can conjury up toney justifications, such as defending innocent school girls everywhere...  That Obama proposes to do so more cheaply, on the fly,  under cover, using drones or getting others to do the fighting does not represent a shift in American policy

To conclude where we began.  Leopards do not change their spots and Empires do not go Swiss.  While he may be personally unscrupulous, politically Obama is what he has to be and has no more control over the calculus of history than the swallow in front of the swarm.

The chief illusion of democracy is the self-delusion that a people can cease to be what they have become.  Empires generate and decay and the economic forces which drive them also, ultimately, devour them.   Those who expected change from Obama and those who think change can come through reforms are living a second childhood.   Change will only come (as it will come) when we cease to be what we are.

This is not to say that Obama has accomplished nothing.  As we were wrapping this piece up, a hillbilly acquaintance of ours rang us up to offer a fitting distillation of Obama’s speech:  “Isn’t it marvelous,” he said, “Obama has managed to convince liberals to accept the neo-con agenda where Bush couldn't have in ten terms.”

  ©Woodchip Gazette, 2014