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July 27, 2011


by Jeffrey St. Clair

Source:  Counterpunch

 Damaged goods, send them back
 I can’t work, I can’t achieve, send me back
 Open the till, give me the change
 You said would do me good
 Refund the cost
 You said you’re cheap, but you’re too much

 --“Damaged Goods,” Gang of Four

Barack Obama was in Brasilia on March 19, 2011, when he announced with
limited fanfare the latest war of his young presidency. The bombing of Libya
had begun with a hail of cruise missile attacks and air strikes. It was
something of an impromptu intervention, orchestrated largely by Hillary
Clinton, Susan Rice and the diva of vengeance Samantha Powers, always hot
for a saturation bombing in the name of human rights.

Obama soon upped the ante by suggesting that it was time for Qaddafi to go.
The Empire had run out of patience with the mercurial colonel. The vague
aims of the Libyan war had moved ominously from enforcing “a no-fly zone”
to seeking regime change. Bombing raids soon targeted Qaddafi and his
family.  Coming in the wake of the extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin
Laden in a blood-spattered home invasion, Qaddafi rightly feared Obama
wanted his body in a bag, too.

Absent mass protests against the impending destruction of Tripoli, it fell to
Congress to take some tentative steps to challenge the latest unauthorized
and unprovoked war. At an earlier time in the history of the Republic, Obama’
s arrogant defiance of Congress and the War Powers Act of 1973 might have
provoked a constitutional crisis. But these are duller and more attenuated
days, where such vital matters have been rendered down into a kind of
hollow political theater.  All the players duly act their parts, but everyone,
even the cable news audience, realizes that it is just for show. The wars will
proceed. The Congress will fund them. The people will have no say in the
matter. As Oscar Wilde quipped: “All the world’s a stage, badly cast.”

That old softy John Boehner, the teary-eyed barkeep’s son, sculpted a
resolution demanding that Obama explain his intentions in Libya. It passed
the House overwhelmingly. A competing resolution crafted by the impish
gadfly Dennis Kucinich called for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from
operations in Libya. This radically sane measure garnered a robust 148
votes. Obama dismissed both attempts to downsize his unilateralist
approach to military operations, saying with a chill touch of the surreal that
the 14,000-and-counting sorties flown over Libya didn’t amount to a “war.”

This is Barack Obama, the political moralist? The change agent? The
constitutional scholar? Listen to that voice. It is petulant and dismissive.
Some might say peevish, like the whine of a talented student caught
cheating on a final exam.

Yes, all the political players were acting their parts. But what role exactly had
Obama assumed?

Obama, the Nobel laureate, casts himself as a New Internationalist, a chief
executive of the global empire, more eager to consult with European heads
of state than members of Congress, even of his own party. Indeed, his co-
conspirators in the startling misadventure in Libya were David Cameron and
Nikolas Sarkozy, an odd troika to say the least. Even Obama’s own Defense
Secretary, Robert Gates, seems to have been discreetly cut out of the
decision loop.

You begin to see why Obama sparks such a virulent reaction among the
more histrionic precincts of the libertarian right.  He has a majestic sense of
his own certitude. The president often seems captivated by the nobility of
his intentions, offering himself up as a kind of savior of the eroding
American Imperium.

While Obama sells pristine idealism to the masses, he is at heart a
calculating pragmatist, especially when it comes to advancing his own
ambitions. Obama doesn’t want to be stained with defeat. It’s one reason he
has walked away from pushing for a Palestinian state, after his Middle East
envoy George Mitchell resigned in frustration. It’s why Obama stubbornly
refused to insist on a public option for his atrocious health care bill. It’s why
he backed off cap-and-trade and organized labor’s card check bill and the

Obama assumed the presidency at a moment when much of the nation
seemed ready to confront the unwelcome fact that the American project had
derailed. Before he died, Norman Mailer took to lamenting that the American
culture was corroding from a bad conscience. The country was warping
under the psychic weight of  years of illegal wars, torture, official greed,
religious prudishness, government surveillance, unsatisfying Viagra-
supplemented sex, bland genetically engineered food, crappy jobs, dismal
movies, and infantile, corporatized music—all scrolling by in an infinite
montage of annoying Tweets. Even the virtual commons of cyberspace had
gone solipsistic.

Corporate capitalism just wasn’t delivering the goods anymore. Not for the
bottom 80 percent, any way.  The economy was in ruins, mired in what
appeared to be a permanent recession.  The manufacturing sector had been
killed from the inside-out, with millions of well-paying jobs outsourced and
nothing but dreary service-sector positions to take their place. Chronic long-
term unemployment hovered at more than 10 percent, worse, much worse, in
black America. Those who clung to their jobs had seen their wages stagnate,
their home values shrivel and were suffocating under merciless mounds of
debt.  Meanwhile, capital moved in ever-tightening circles among a new
odious breed of super-rich, making sweat-free billions from the facile
movement of money.

By 2008, the wistfulness seemed to have evaporated from the American
spirit. The country had seen its own government repeatedly prey on its
citizens’ fear of the future. Paranoia had become the last growth industry.
From the High Sierras to the Blue Ridge, the political landscape was sour
and spiteful, the perfect seed-ground for the sprouting of the Tea Party and
even ranker and more venomous movements on the American right.  These
were not the ideological descendents of the fiery libertarian Barry
Goldwater. The tea-baggers lacked Goldwater’s western innocence and
naïve idealism. These suburban populists, by and large, were white, unhappy
and aging.  Animated by the grim nostalgia for a pre-Lapsarian fantasyland
called the Reagan administration, many sensed their station in society
slipping inexorably away. They wanted their country back. But back from

Instead of blaming corporate outsourcers or predatory bankers, they
directed their vindictive impulse toward immigrants and blacks, government
workers and teachers, scientists and homosexuals. There’s something
profoundly pathetic about the political fatalism of this new species of Know-
Nothings. But, it must be said, their wrath was mostly pure. This strange
consortium of discontent seethed with an inchoate sense of alienation, an
acidic despair at the diminished potentialities of life in post-industrial

No, these were not fanatical idealists or even ante-bellum utopians. They
were levelers, of a sort, splenetic and dread-fuelled levelers,
conspiratorialists with a Nixonian appetite for political destruction. Primed
into a frenzy by the cynical rantings of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, mass
gatherings of Tea Partiers across the summer of 2009 showed signs of a
collective psychopathy, as if the enervating madness from decades of
confinement in the hothouse of the American suburbs had finally ruptured in
primetime for all the world to watch over-and-over again on YouTube with
mounting mortification. Right there on the National Mall could be heard the
vapid gibberish of Michele Bachmann and the new American preterite, those
lost and bitter souls who felt their culture had left them far behind.

With his sunny disposition and Prospero-like aptitude for mystification,
Obama should have been able to convert them or, at least, to roll over them.
Instead, they kicked his ass. How?

Obama is a master of gesture politics, but he tends to flinch in nearly every
pitched battle, even when the odds and the public are behind him. His
political instincts drive him to seek cover in the middle ground. He is a
reflexive compromiser, more Rodney “Can’t We All Just Get Along” King than
Reverend King.  Even when confronted by bumbling hacks like John
Boehner and Eric Cantor, Obama tends to wilt.

Perhaps Obama had never before been confronted with quite this level of
toxic hostility. After all, he’d lived something of a charmed life, the life of a
star-child, coddled and pampered, encouraged and adulated, from Indonesia
to Harvard. Obama was the physical and psychic embodiment of the new
multiculturalism: lean, affable, assured, non-threatening. His vaguely liberal
political ideology remained opaque at the core. Instead of an over-arching
agenda, Obama delivered facile jingoisms proclaiming a post-racial and post-
partisan America. Instead of radical change, Obama offered simply
managerial competence.  This, naturally, the Berserkers of the Right
interpreted as hubris and arrogance and such hollow homilies served only to
exacerbate their rage. The virulent right had profiled Obama and found him
to be the perfect target for their accreted animus. And, even better, they had
zeroed-in on an enemy so innately conflict-averse that even when pummeled
with racist slurs he wouldn’t punch back.

Of course, Obama’s most grievous political wounds were self-inflicted,
starting even before his election when he rushed back to Washington to
help rescue Bush’s Wall Street bailout. This was perhaps the first real
indication that the luminous campaign speeches about generational and
systemic change masked the servile psyche of a man who was desperately
yearning to be embraced by the nation’s political and financial elites. Instead
of meeting with the victims of Wall Street predators or their advocates, like
Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, Obama fist-bumped with the brain trust of
Goldman Sachs and schmoozed with the crème de la crème of K Street
corporate lobbyists. In the end, Obama helped salvage some of the most
venal and corrupt enterprises on Wall Street, agreed to shield their
executives from prosecution for their financial crimes and, predictably, later
got repaid with their scorn.

Thus the Obama revolution was over before it started, guttered by the
politician’s overweening desire to prove himself to the grandees of the
establishment.  From there on, other promises, from confronting climate
change to closing Gitmo, from ending torture to initiating a nationalized
health care system, proved even easier to break.

Take the issue that had so vivified his campaign: ending the war on Iraq.
Within weeks of taking office, Obama had been taken to the woodshed by
Robert Gates and General David Petreaus and had returned to the White
House bruised and humbled. The withdrawal would slowly proceed, but a
sinister force would remain behind indefinitely, a lethal contingent of some
50,000 or so CIA operatives, special forces units, hunter-killer squads and
ruthless private security details.  Bush’s overt war quietly became a black op
under Obama. Out of sight, out of mind.

By the fall of 2009 even the most calloused Washington hands had grown
weary over how deeply entangled the US occupation of Afghanistan had
become. The savage rhythms of the war there had backfired. Too many
broken promises, too many bombed weddings and assassinations, too many
dead and mutilated children, too much cowardice and corruption in the
puppet satrapy in Kabul. The tide had irrevocably turned against the US and
its squalid policies. Far from being terminally crippled, the Taliban was now
stronger than it had been at any time since 2001. But instead of capitalizing
on this tectonic shift of sentiment by drawing down American troops, Obama,
in a cynical ploy to prove his martial meddle, journeyed to West Point and
announced in a somber speech that he was raising the stakes in Afghanistan
by injecting a Petreaus-sanctioned surge of forces into the country and
unleashing a new campaign of lethal operations that would track and target
suspected insurgents across the Hindu Kush and into Pakistan.

That night Obama spoke in a stern cadence, studded with imperious pauses,
as if to suggest that he, unlike the fickle George W. Bush, was going to wage
the Afghan war until it was won. But he knew better. And so did his high
command—even Stanley McChrystal and David Petreaus, who had
trademarked the counter-insurgency strategy. There was nothing to win in
Afghanistan. Out on that distant rim of the world, there weren’t even any
standards to gauge military success. This was meant to be a punitive war,
pure and simple, designed to draw as much blood as possible, an obscene
war fought largely by remote-controlled drones attacking peasant villages
with murderous indiscretion.

Afterwards, the American peace movement could only bray in impotent
outrage. But as Obama’s wars spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan
and Yemen, Somalia and Libya, outside of the redoubtable Catholic Workers
and Quakers and a few Code Pinkers--the last flickering moral lights in the
nation--even those empty yawps of protest dissipated into whispered
lamentations, hushed murmurs of disillusionment. Could it be that the
American Left had gone extinct as any kind of potent political force and it
took the election of Barack Obama to prove it?

And what of Obama’s spellbound followers, those youthful crusaders who
saw him illumined in the sacral glow of his ethereal rhetoric and cleaved to
him during the hard slog of two campaigns with a near-religious devotion?  
What was running through their minds when the mists finally parted to reveal
that Obama was implementing cunning tracings of Bush-era policies on
everything from the indefinite detention of uncharged prisoners in the war
on terror to raids on medical marijuana distributors in states where medical
pot has been legalized? What, indeed.

Illusions die hard, especially when shattered by cruise missiles.