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Beacon of Hope?

This post was originally published on November 22, 2009. If you would like to comment on it, please go here.

Something about the last few years has got me rethinking the globalist project. Back in the 1990s, when I was working for a biotechnology company in San Francisco, I witnessed the internet startup bubble firsthand. It seemed that everyone I knew was caught up in this fever, in which people still in their twenties were living lifestyles fueled by emerging technologies, designer drugs and high-priced fashion. I was aware at the time that it couldn’t last, but in this optimistic context I was largely dismissive of the critics of globalization. Globalism then seemed to me like a good thing: capitalism was the motor of human development, and economic opportunity was spreading as far away as Indonesia and Brazil. Even if people making gym shoes or motherboards in the Third World were being exploited by American standards, I felt it was still better than anything they had known before. “A rising tide lifts all boats” was the word of the day.

Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, and America’s preparations for a “long war” of revenge and conquest. There was heady talk by neoconservatives about America as the new Rome, and a New American Century. When I participated along with tens of thousands of my fellow San Franciscans in mass demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, I felt I was standing up for a better vision of how the world could be, and America’s role in it. In my own mind I was defending the globalist project, and the humanistic vision of the Clinton–Gore years, against the us-versus-them mentality we were coming to know under Bush–Cheney. It didn’t have to be this way, I felt. Surely all people of the world wanted the same thing: democracy, economic prosperity, dignity for themselves and their families. So why couldn’t we build this together? There were good capitalists and bad capitalists, I argued: those who felt that limited resources were something to be fought over and controlled, and those who created new technologies that enlarged the sphere of human possibility. America in the recent past had been a model of this new way. The neoconservatives and their wars of empire were betraying this vision.

I moved to Morocco in 2003 and lived there for three years because I wanted to experience life on the other side of the Islamic–Western divide, but just as importantly, on the other side of the divide between rich and poor nations. I thought a good deal at the time about democratic ideals, because it was clear to me that my Moroccan friends were hoping for changes in their country that would help it to become a society in which basic rights were protected, government was transparent and accountable to the people, and development was pursued in the common interest. I spoke often with my friends about the principles enshrined in the American Constitution, such as a government of checks and balances, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the right not to be held without charges, and of course the rights of freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. I admired my friends’ ambition to build a more free and transparent society, and I insisted that these principles were the essential foundation of any such project.

At the same time, however, the internet was bringing me news almost daily of how America had betrayed its own principles in the name of the “global war on terror” and imperial ambition. Wiretapping without a warrant, a global network of secret prisons, torture, kidnapping of suspected terrorists, assassinations with robot aircraft, funding of death squads and militias, use of white phosphorus on civilians, and the mother of all war crimes, the illegal war itself: it seemed that nothing was off limits to the power-mad, fiercely ideological war profiteers in Washington. My only consolation was that eventually democracy would prevail, the abuses would be turned back, sanity would be restored, and the Constitution would return to force. Perhaps even justice would be done, and the war criminals would be held accountable for their crimes. All it would take would be an election in which the basic decency of the American people reasserted itself, putting in place an administration committed to doing the right thing.

I was back in the U.S. for the 2008 presidential election, and the nearly two years of political maneuvering that preceded it. Progressives, those who seek justice and equality for all people and oppose the idea of American empire, were looking for a candidate, and many thought they had found him in Barack Obama. But even though Obama had opposed the invasion of Iraq before it even began, he did so on pragmatic, not idealistic grounds. “I’m not opposed to all wars,” he said. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Another early warning sign was when he went before AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and spoke of how he had walked on the streets of an Israeli town and found it to be like “a suburb in America.” I liked what he said about regimes like Iran and Cuba—that we should not be afraid to sit down with them, without preconditions, to discuss our differences—and I liked the way he seemed to understand the aspirations of young people in poor countries to improve their lives in ways that Americans take for granted. But in the same foreign policy speech where he spoke of “reaching out to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world’s forgotten corners,” Obama called for “building a 21st century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people.” His rhetoric was quick to defend the idea that America has a unique mission in the world—a “beacon of hope” that shines on the huddled masses—and this mission, though couched in humanistic terms of “recognizing the inherent equality and worth of all people,” still justified American intervention in the affairs of every nation, through military means if necessary.

Even before becoming president, Obama presented a plan to expand America’s fighting force by 90,000—and while he supported military withdrawal from Iraq, it was only to refocus our efforts on what he saw as the “right battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Meanwhile, foreign policy scholar Chalmers Johnson had written a scathing critique of American empire in the form of three books, Blowback, Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis, in which he reminded us of the amazing fact that America has military bases in no less than 130 foreign nations—a network built up to contain the Soviet empire during the Cold War, but in no way diminished since then. What are we still doing there? Johnson asked. To what end? Obama’s project was not to dismantle this network, but in fact to strengthen it, to make it more intelligent and effective, extending American influence even further. For Obama, humanism and dialogue were simply tools in the toolbox of American empire, ones the Bush administration had neglected. I supported Obama through lack of a better choice—of course, electing a president who wants to diminish American power is impossible—but I periodically wondered if my fellow progressives were naive in assuming he was one of us. Since the election, Obama’s willingness to continue many of the worst Bush-era policies—military courts for suspected terrorists, attacks by robot aircraft that inevitably kill civilians, use of the U.N. veto to defend Israeli aggression, and so on—has confirmed my doubts.

Just before the election, the American empire suffered a huge, self-inflicted blow in the form of an economic collapse brought on by uncontrolled speculation by the nation’s largest banks. Obama’s level-headed response to this helped get him elected—he proposed stimulus spending to create jobs, aid to struggling homeowners, regulation of global markets, and long-term reforms in the fields of education, energy and health care—and in this, at least, I was proud to support him. He seemed to understand that American and indeed global development were at risk if they were left in the hands of speculators and profiteers. He seemed ready to use the power of the state—the people’s power—to protect the common good against corporate interests in ways not seen in a generation. Clinton had been a tinkerer, I felt, albeit an effective one—Obama would reform the system from top to bottom. He had a bold, integrated vision, and the moment was ripe for a profound transformation. He would lay the foundation for a new progressive era, much as Roosevelt had done in the Great Depression.

Instead, since taking office, Obama’s reforms have been terribly cautious, and in many ways they aren’t reforms at all. His stimulus spending was the minimum necessary. His handling of the banking crisis has left all the old structures intact, and even the old practices. Wall Street is already designing new speculative products, such as life insurance policies resold in the form of securities—“the earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return.” Worse still, Obama’s signature issue of health care reform is shaping up as a huge giveaway to the private insurance industry, rather than forcing them to compete on equal terms with a robust public plan available to everyone, as he promised during the campaign. No wonder the populist right is throwing “tea parties” and talking revolution. They feel it’s business as usual in Washington, with handouts to the very forces—banks and insurance companies—that are squeezing every dime from their pockets. Even Obama’s most ardent supporters are beginning to have their doubts about all the compromising they’ve been forced to do. Obama is beginning to look like a tool of corporate interests—smoother and more thoughtful, no doubt, than Bush, but serving the same ends with greater intelligence. So in economic as well as foreign policy, Obama is reinforcing, rather than dismantling or reforming, the existing structures of exploitation.

Returning now to the globalist project, with which I began this article: I’ve conflated it here with American empire, but it is also the heir to earlier imperial projects, notably the British Empire of a century ago, and the European colonial project in general. In fact, “globalization” is nothing new. For centuries there has existed an international network of financing, trade and military might, designed to extract the resources of faraway lands for the benefit of a tiny elite. In the Clinton years, I persuaded myself that this project had turned democratic—indeed, for its century on the world stage, the American empire has promoted itself as the champion of democracy and opportunity for all peoples. But its record is far from that, and only the willful self-delusions of American public discourse blind us to that reality. From the military interventions in Latin America of the 1920s, to the CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, to the support for dictators around the world in the 1970s, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, America has continually and aggressively intervened in the affairs of foreign nations in the pursuit of its own interests—or more precisely, in the interests of its powerful elites. Obama has in no way deviated from that course. Indeed he affirms it, in two wars and countless “advisory” engagements around the world—and affirming it is a necessary condition for his being president.

We live in a world where power relationships are what matter, and no matter how much humanizing rhetoric we use, the fact remains that this is a bloody game. Directly or through its sponsorship of local forces, America has been responsible for millions of deaths on every continent since World War II. It’s not that the American empire is worse than any other, but precisely that it is no better. It is the nature of empires to work this way, and the current focus of imperial expansion is the Islamic world. What astonishes me is how it is possible for Americans to continue to believe in our civilizing mission as bringers of democracy and opportunity to faraway peoples, while our armies are spreading destruction in the service of corrupt regimes. Iraq was recently ranked as the most corrupt government in the Arab region, while Afghanistan is the second most corrupt in the entire world, after only Somalia. Meanwhile we provide exceptional support for the state of Israel, in the form of direct financing for whatever weapons they choose, while turning a blind eye to their program of ethnic cleansing in Palestine—even when the Goldstone Report on last year’s war in Gaza, accepted by all but eighteen of the world’s nations, accuses them of “direct attacks against civilians” and targeting “the people of Gaza as a whole.”

Whenever we read or think about these strategies of domination and conquest, we do so through the filter of our own supposed humanitarian intent. But how can such a logic stand up to scrutiny? The only way is to demonize our victims, taking away their humanity. Those weren’t women and children who died under our missiles at a wedding party, they were Al Qaeda or Taliban terrorists. If there were women and children involved, it was their fault for harboring terrorists. Israel used this same logic when fighting Hezbollah in 2006, and again when fighting Hamas in 2008. They aren’t really people like us—like “a suburb in America” as Obama said of the Israeli town he visited—they are dangerous, angry people, crazed by an ideology that values death over life. To defend our humanistic values against such a threat, we have no choice but to use the most severe measures. Our bombs and bullets are a reflection, not of our own inhumanity, but the inhumanity of our enemy. They made us this way!

This line of thinking first appeared in the American psyche during the Indian Wars of the 19th century. It was an era of frank territorial expansion, or “Manifest Destiny” as it was called then—meaning that God had given America the right to occupy the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To justify our massacre or subjugation of the people already living there, they were painted as savages who knew no scruples in war. They would slaughter our women and children if they could, so we had no choice but to slaughter theirs. They had no army or uniforms, so we were at war with an entire race. I am indebted to a recent article by Arthur Silber for pointing out that in America’s first war beyond its shores, this thinking and these tactics were translated to the world stage. In the Philippine–American War of 1899–1902, America seized the Spanish colony of the Philippines as its own, but the Filipinos fought bravely for their independence. Hundreds of thousands died in this conflict, and an American general gave the order to kill everyone over ten. This was justified with rhetoric familiar to us both from the Indian Wars, where most of the officer corps had gained their battlefield experience, and from the “global war on terror” today. “It is not civilized warfare,” said the Philadelphia Ledger, “but we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is force, violence, and brutality, and we are giving it to them.” Mark Twain, at the time America’s most celebrated writer, wrote an eloquent protest against this hypocrisy, but the war was popular with the American people. Later the same rhetoric was used against Germany in World War I, Japan in World War II, and in Vietnam, which American soldiers called “Indian Country.”

In 2004, neoconservative luminary Robert D. Kaplan wrote an article proclaiming that the whole world is now “Indian Country” and that Americans must be prepared to fight “dirty little struggles” against “small clusters of combatants hiding out in Third World slums, deserts and jungles.” We will encounter “warrior braves beside women and children, much like Fallujah.” Since such thinking is now the common wisdom of America’s top generals like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, the connection of the Indian Wars to the “global war on terror” is complete. America is engaged in nothing less than a war of imperial domination around the globe, which requires demonizing whatever popular, local forces may stand in our way. It is Manifest Destiny all over again, only this time on a global scale. American force has the right to assert itself wherever it pleases, because it America’s mission to bring light to the darkness. Unfortunately, whether he realizes it or not, this is the meaning of Obama’s “beacon of hope.”