Obama And The Empire
By William Blum
The New Yorker magazine in its July 14 issue ran a cover cartoon that achieved instant fame. It showed Barack Obama wearing Muslim garb in the Oval Office with a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall. Obama is delivering a fist bump to his wife, Michelle, who has an Afro hairdo and an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. An American flag lies burning in the fireplace. The magazine says it’s all satire, a parody of the crazy right-wing fears, rumors, and scare tactics about Obama’s past and ideology.
The cartoon makes fun of the idea that Barack and Michelle Obama are some kind of mixture of Black Panther, Islamist jihadist, and Marxist revolutionary. But how much more educational for the American public and the world it would be to make fun of the idea that Obama is even some kind of progressive.
I’m more concerned here with foreign policy than domestic issues because it’s in this area that the US government can do, and indeed does do, the most harm to the world, to put it mildly. And in this area what do we find? We find Obama threatening, several times, to attack Iran if they don’t do what the United States wants them to do nuclear-wise; threatening more than once to attack Pakistan if their anti-terrorist policies are not tough enough or if there would be a regime change in the nuclear-armed country not to his liking; calling for a large increase in US troops and tougher policies for Afghanistan; wholly and unequivocally embracing Israel as if it were the 51st state; totally ignoring Hamas, an elected ruling party in the occupied territory; decrying the Berlin Wall in his recent talk in that city, about the safest thing a politician can do, but with no mention of the Israeli Wall while in Israel, nor the numerous American-built walls in Baghdad while in Iraq; referring to the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez as “authoritarian”, but never referring similarly to the government of George W. Bush, certainly more deserving of the label; talking with the usual disinformation and hostility about Cuba, albeit with a token reform re visits and remittances. But would he dare mention the outrageous case of the imprisoned Cuban Five1 in his frequent references to fighting terrorism?
While an Illinois state senator in January 2004, Obama declared that it was time “to end the embargo with Cuba” because it had “utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro.” But speaking as a presidential candidate to a Cuban-American audience in Miami in August 2007, he said he would not “take off the embargo” as president because it is “an important inducement for change.”2 He thus went from a good policy for the wrong reason to the wrong policy for the wrong reason. Does Mr. Obama care any more than Mr. Bush that the United Nations General Assembly has voted — virtually unanimously — 16 years in a row against the embargo?
In summary, it would be difficult to name a single ODE (Officially Designated Enemy) that Obama has not been critical of or to name one that he has supported. Can this be mere coincidence?
The fact that Obama says he’s willing to “talk” to some of the “enemies” more than the Bush administration has done sounds good, but one doesn’t have to be too cynical to believe that it will not amount to more than a public relations gimmick. It’s only change of policy that counts. Why doesn’t he simply and clearly state that he would not attack Iran unless Iran first attacked the US or Israel or anyone else?
As to Iraq, if you’re sick to the core of your being about the horrors US policy brings down upon the heads of the people of that unhappy land, then you must support withdrawal –- immediate, total, all troops, combat and non-combat, all the Blackwater-type killer contractors, not moved to Kuwait or Qatar to be on call. All bases out. No permanent bases. No permanent war. No timetables. No approval by the US military necessary. No reductions in forces. Just OUT. ALL. Just like what the people of Iraq want. Nothing less will give them the opportunity to try to put an end to the civil war and violence instigated by the American invasion and occupation and to recreate their failed state.
George W. Bush, 2006: “We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done as long as the government wants us there.”3
George W. Bush, 2007: “It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave.”4
Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, 2008: “said his government was ‘impatiently waiting’ for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.”5
Barack Obama, 2008: We can “redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months.”6
Obama’s terms of withdrawal equals no withdrawal. Literally. Has he ever said that the war is categorically illegal and immoral? A war crime? Or that anti-American terrorism in the world is the direct result of oppressive US policies? Instead he calls for a troop increase and “the first truly 21st century military … We must maintain the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.”7 Why of course, that’s what the people of the United States and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the people in this sad world desperately desire and need — greater American killing power! Obama is not so much concerned with ending America’s endless warfare as he is with “succeeding” in them, by whatever perverted definition of that word.
And has he ever dared to raise the obvious question: Why would Iran, even if nuclear armed, be a threat to attack the US or Israel? Any more than Iraq was such a threat. Which was zero. Instead, he has said things like “Iran continues to be a major threat” and repeats the tiresome lie that the Iranian president called for the destruction of Israel.8
Obama, one observer has noted, “opposes the present US policy in Iraq not on the basis of any principled opposition to neo-colonialism or aggressive war, but rather on the grounds that the Iraq war is a mistaken deployment of power that fails to advance the global strategic interests of American imperialism.”9
He and his supporters have made much of the speech he delivered in the Illinois state legislature in 2002 against the upcoming US invasion of Iraq. But two years later, when he was running for the US Senate, he declared: “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.”10 Since taking office in January 2005, he has voted to approve every war appropriation the Republicans have put forward. He also voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her complicity in the Bush Administration’s false justifications for going to war in Iraq. In doing so, he lacked the courage of 12 of his Democratic Party Senate colleagues who voted against her confirmation.
If you’re one of those who would like to believe that Obama has to present moderate foreign policy views to be elected, but once he’s in the White House we can forget that he lied to us repeatedly and the true, progressive man of peace and international law and human rights will emerge … keep in mind that as a US Senate candidate in 2004 he threatened missile strikes against Iran.11 and winning that election apparently did not put him in touch with his inner peacenik.
When, in 2005, the other Illinois Senator, Dick Durbin, stuck his neck out and compared American torture at Guantanamo to “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings”, and was angrily denounced by the right wing, Obama stood up in the Senate and … defended him? No, he joined the critics, thrice calling Durbin’s remark a “mistake.”12
One of Obama’s chief foreign policy advisers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, a man instrumental in provoking Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, which was followed by massive US military supplies to the opposition and widespread war. This gave rise to a generation of Islamic jihadists, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and more than two decades of anti-American terrorism. Asked later if he had any regrets about this policy, Brzezinski replied: “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, in substance: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”13
Another prominent Obama adviser — from a list entirely and depressingly establishment-imperial — is Madeleine Albright, who should always wear gloves because her hands are caked with blood from her roles in the bombings of Iraq and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In a primary campaign talk in March, Obama said that “he would return the country to the more ‘traditional’ foreign policy efforts of past presidents, such as George H.W. Bush, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.”14 Use your imagination. Bloody serial interventionists, all.
Why have well-known conservatives like George Will, David Brooks, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Scarborough, and others spoken so favorably about Obama’s candidacy?15 Whatever else, they know he’s not a threat to their most cherished views and values.
Given all this, can we expect a more enlightened, less bloody, more progressive and humane foreign policy from Mr. Barack Obama? Forget the alleged eloquence and charm; forget the warm feel-good stuff; forget the interminable clichés and platitudes about hope, change, unity, and America’s indispensable role as world leader; forget all the religiobabble; forget John McCain and George W. Bush … All that counts is putting an end to the horror — the bombings, the invasions, the killings, the destruction, the overthrows, the occupations, the torture, the American Empire.
Al Gore and John Kerry both took the progressive vote for granted. Neither had ever been particularly progressive himself. Each harbored a measure of disdain for the left. Both paid a heavy price for the neglect. I and millions like me voted for Ralph Nader, or some other third-party candidate, or stayed home. Obama is doing the same as Gore and Kerry. Progressives should let him know that his positions are not acceptable, keeping up the anti-war pressure on him and the Democratic Party at every opportunity. For whatever good it just might do.
I’m afraid that if Barack Obama becomes president he’s going to break a lot of young hearts. And some older ones as well.
Writer Norman Solomon has written: “These days, an appreciable number of Obama supporters are starting to use words like ‘disillusionment.’ But that’s a consequence of projecting their political outlooks onto the candidate in the first place. The best way to avoid becoming disillusioned is to not have illusions in the first place.”
Victors’ justice and impunity
So, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has finally been apprehended. He’s slated to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands, charged with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. And now all the law-abiding governments of the world, and all the right-minded media of the world, and all the decent citizens of the world join together in celebrating this triumph of justice.
The ICTY was created by the United Nations in 1993. Its full name is “The International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991?. Notice the “who” — “Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law”. Notice the “where” — “Territory of the Former Yugoslavia”. This is all spelled out in the statute of the Tribunal.16
In 1999, NATO (primarily the United States) bombed the Yugoslav republic of Serbia for 78 consecutive days, ruining the economy, the ecology, power supply, bridges, apartment buildings, transportation, infrastructure, churches, schools, pushing the country many years back in its development, killing hundreds or thousands of people, traumatizing countless children who’ll be reacting unhappily to certain sounds and sights for perhaps the remainder of their days; the most ferocious sustained bombing of a nation in the history of the world. Nobody has ever suggested that Serbia had attacked or was preparing to attack a member state of NATO, and that is the only event which justifies a reaction under the NATO treaty. But Serbia was guilty of a greater crime: It had refused to happily fall under the dominion of the US/NATO/European Union/World Bank/IMF/WTO world government. The quasi-socialist Serbian state was Europe’s last communist holdout. Moreover, post-cold war, NATO needed to demonstrate a raison d’être if it was to remain alive as Washington’s enforcement thug.
The ICTY has already held one high-level trial in an attempt to convince the world of the justice of the NATO bombing — former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who died in the Hague prison while trying to defend himself against charges that remain unproven. Radovan Karadzic is now next. When will the Western leaders behind the bombing of Serbia be tried for war crimes, as called for by the Tribunal’s own statute?
Shortly after the bombing began in March, 1999, professionals in international law from Canada, the United Kingdom, Greece, and the United States began to file complaints with the ICTY charging leaders of NATO countries with “grave violations of international humanitarian law”, including “wilful killing, wilfully causing great suffering and serious injury to body and health, employment of poisonous weapons and other weapons to cause unnecessary suffering, wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, unlawful attacks on civilian objects, devastation not necessitated by military objectives, attacks on undefended buildings and dwellings, destruction and wilful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences.”
The Canadian suit named 68 leaders, including William Clinton, Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, Tony Blair, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and NATO officials Javier Solana, Wesley Clark, and Jamie Shea. The complaint also alleged “open violation” of the United Nations Charter, the NATO treaty itself, the Geneva Conventions, and the Principles of International Law Recognized by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
The complainants’ briefs pointed out that the prosecution of those named by them was “not only a requirement of law, it is a requirement of justice to the victims and of deterrence to powerful countries such as those in NATO who, in their military might and in their control over the media, are lacking in any other natural restraint such as might deter less powerful countries.” Charging the war’s victors, not only its losers, it was argued, would be a watershed in international criminal law.
In a letter to Louise Arbour, the court’s chief prosecutor, Michael Mandel, a professor of law in Toronto and the initiator of the Canadian suit, stated:
Unfortunately, as you know, many doubts have already been raised about the impartiality of your Tribunal. In the early days of the conflict, after a formal and, in our view, justified complaint against NATO leaders had been laid before it by members of the Faculty of Law of Belgrade University, you appeared at a press conference with one of the accused, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who made a great show of handing you a dossier of Serbian war crimes. In early May, you appeared at another press conference with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, by that time herself the subject of two formal complaints of war crimes over the targeting of civilians in Yugoslavia.17
Arbour herself made little attempt to hide the pro-NATO bias she wore beneath her robe. She trusted NATO to be its own police, judge, jury, and prison guard. Here are her own words:
I am obviously not commenting on any allegations of violations of international humanitarian law supposedly perpetrated by nationals of NATO countries. I accept the assurances given by NATO leaders that they intend to conduct their operations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in full compliance with international humanitarian law.18
The ICTY on its website tells us: “By holding individuals accountable regardless of their position, the ICTY’s work has dismantled the tradition of impunity for war crimes and other serious violations of international law, particularly by individuals who held the most senior positions.”19 US/NATO leaders, however, are immune not only for the 1999 bombings of Serbia, but the many bombings of Bosnia in the period 1993-95, including the use of depleted uranium. Impunity indeed.
1. William Blum, “Cuban Political Prisoners … in the United States.”
2. Washington Post, February 25, 2008; p.A4.
3. New York Times, December 1, 2006, p.1.
4. White House press conference, May 24, 2007.
5. Washington Post, July 9, 2008.
6. Obama’s website.
7. Speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, April 23, 2007.
8. Haaretz.com (leading Israeli newspaper), May 16, 2007.
9. Bill Van Auken, Global Research, July 18, 2008.
10. Chicago Tribune, July 27, 2004.
11. Chicago Tribune, September 25, 2004.
12. Congressional Record, June 21, 2005, p.S6897.
13. For the full Brzezinski interview.
14. Associated Press, March 28, 2008.
15. See, for example, Peter Wehner, “Why Republicans Like Obama”, Washington Post, February 3, 2008, p.B7.
16. “Updated Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.”
17. This and most of the other material concerning the complaints to the Tribunal mentioned here were transmitted to this writer by Mandel and other complainants. See also: Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder (2004).
18. Press Release from Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour, The Hague, May 13, 1999.
19. Fact sheets.
Blum is the author of: Killing Hope: US Military and CIA
Interventions Since World War 2, Rogue State: A Guide to the World's
Only Superpower, West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir, Freeing the
World to Death: Essays on the American Empire. He can be reached at: