John Edwards, Barack Obama and the Myth of Post-WWII U.S. Benevolence

“Imperial Temptations”

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is a good man who calls himself “a real Democrat, not a ‘new Democrat.” Consistent with that self-description, he is willing to buck corporate sensibilities and lose elite campaign contributions by embracing the labor movement, which he describes as “the greatest anti-poverty program in American history.”

He speaks honestly about and against the growing chasm between rich and poor within the United States. He has the most progressive health care proposal among the top-tier Democratic candidates and says he’s willing to raise taxes to fund universal coverage.

He calls for rolling back some of the worst tax cuts that George W. Bush granted to the wealthy and says he refuses to privilege deficit reduction over poverty reduction.

He criticizes Congressional Democrats for agreeing to fund the continued U.S. war in Iraq without timetables for withdrawal. He says that “its time for Americans to be patriotic about something other than war” and that “the way to support the troops is to end the war.”

Good for him. He’s the only “top tier” presidential candidate I (personally to the left of Dennis Kucinich) could imagine myself voting for in 2008.


Still, reading John Edwards’ recent (May 23rd) speech to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) yesterday, I was unfortunately reminded of an interesting argument Chris Hedges makes in his new book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2006).

It will not do, Hedges says, for “mainstream Christians” who are appalled by the Christian Right’s use of scripture to “cherry pick the Bible to create a Jesus and God who are always loving and compassionate. Such Christians,” Hedges argues, “often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right” (Hedges, p. 6).

The Bible is loaded with such material. Some of the worst is found in the Book of Revelation, which portrays a final and bloody battle between the forces of Good – led by a Warrior Christ that would make George the Crusader Bush II proud – and the forces of evil. Concluding with great birds of prey feasting on the flesh of vanquished non-Christians, it is “a story of God’s ruthless, terrifying and violent power unleashed on nonbelievers” (p. 5).

In Hedges’ view, religious authorities should “denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds…As long as scripture, blessed and accepted by the church, teaches that at the end of the time there will be a day of Wrath and Christians will control the shattered remnants of a world cleansed through violence and war, as long as it teaches that all non-believers will be tormented, destroyed and banished to Hell,” Hedges warns, “it will be hard to thwart the message of radical apocalyptic preachers or assuage the fears of the Islamic world that Christians are calling for its annihilation.” (p. 7)


When it comes to the secular doctrines and imperial record at the heart of the history of U.S. foreign relations, Senator Edwards and most of his fellow Democratic candidates are like mainstream Christians who want to believe that their faith’s core documents are inherently peaceful and just and that the Christian Right does not draw on real and significant material in Christian scripture.

Edwards is angry at George W. Bush and the neoconservatives for weakening America’s power by perverting the basic goodness of U.S. foreign policy once epitomized and advanced by Cold War leaders like “the great Dean Acheson,” “President Harry Truman,” “General George Marshall,” and George Kennan. Edwards is upset because Bush II’s toxic combination of corruption, arrogance, and crass, incompetent imperialism has “risk[ed] squandering our [U.S.] prestige” and “strained our military to the breaking point.” Edwards told the CFR that Bush’s Iraq policy has compromised the United States’ global “force structure,” and “distracted” the nation from the broader tasks of global management, which require the direction that only America can provide.

For Edwards, Bush’s reckless invasion of Iraq (too focused on “military power alone”) and global unilateralism have damaged Washington’s ability to “spread the dream of freedom across the globe.”

Thanks to Bush’s mismanagement and abuse of U.S. power, Edwards feels, the next president will have to “chart a course for America to regain the global stature and legitimacy that we’ll need to lead and shape the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.”

The path toward righteous and effective foreign policy – a world where America rules through “moral leadership” and “example” – has already been shown to us, Edwards argues, by the leaders of the “Greatest Generation” during and after World War Two. By Edwards’ account, these ”wise” policy elites understood that “the military…must work alongside – and reinforce – America’s moral leadership.” They “resisted the imperial temptation to force our will by virtue of our unmatched strength. Instead, they built bonds of trust founded on restraint, the rule of law and good faith.” They “saw the truth: that it would require not only America’s military might, but our ingenuity, our allies, and our generosity to rebuild Europe and keep it safe from tyrants who would prey on poverty and resentment.”

It was through this “moral leadership,” mixed to judicious use of military strength, Edwards told the CFR, that “America deterred the Soviet Union from its quest for world domination.” We saw that leadership, Edwards said, “when we established the United Nations and NATO, which have done so much for peace and human rights. After the Cold War,” Edwards added, “we saw it in Bosnia, where we helped broker a lasting peace. And we saw it again in Kosovo, where we joined our NATO allies to stop a brutal war criminal from perpetrating another campaign of ethnic cleansing.”

“This,” Edwards told the CFR, “is the America where I grew up as a young boy – a strong nation whose moral promise seemed to fill the hearts of almost everyone I knew. We believed that America, like a beacon, could light up even the darkest corners of the world.”

It is important, Edwards feels, that “the U.S. military [remains] the most modern and capable fighting force on the planet.” This is because, “as Robert F. Kennedy once wrote, ‘Our answer is the world’s hope.’

“Our answer is the world’s hope.” Edwards repeated the phrase for the CFR, adding what he considered a hopeful line at the end of his speech: “Like a beacon, America can once again provide a clear light for the world – dissolving the fog of injustice, illuminating the path to a new century” (John Edwards, speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, May 23, 2007, read online at


Edwards is hardly alone among the Democrats in heaping praise on U.S. Cold War foreign policy makers and in framing Bush’s foreign policy negatively against the noble background of the “Greatest Generation.” You could find similar phrases and formulations in the phrases in the foreign policy speeches of Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama. They all read from the same doctrinal bible when it comes to post-WWII America’s glorious and benevolent role in the world.

None of them kiss the portraits of past U.S. foreign policy elites more energetically than Senator Obama. In his ponderous, power-worshipping campaign book The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s obedient reverence for the great white masters of the past peaks with the rise of the glorious Cold War. He “ponders” with a sense of awe “the work” of Cold War architect George Kennan, which he contrasts with what he sees as the repulsive nihilism of the 1960s New Left. He applauds the wonderful (for him) “post-[World War Two] leadership of president Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall and George Kennan” for “craft[ing] …a…new…order that married [Woodrow] Wilsonian idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of American power with a humility regarding America’s ability to control events around the world.” He praises the architects of the Cold War for checking the Soviet Union’s nefarious designs “to spread [in Obama’s words] its totalitarian brand of communism.”


The problem with this mainstream Democratic take on post-WWII U.S. foreign policy is the same problem that Hedges finds with many Christians’ take on the Bible. It’s a whitewash. It leaves out the full and ugly truth. It’s Orwellian. It airbrushes out terrible facts that don’t fit the happy, nationally narcissistic story line.

Atomic Criminality

There’s a lot to delete. The post-World War II era and the Cold War began, after all, with Truman’s perpetration of one of the greatest war crimes in history. He ordered the monumentally mass-murderous bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki well after U.S. authorities knew that Japan was decisively defeated and looking to surrender. He did so with full knowledge that the Japanese only required assurances that the institution of the Emperor could remain intact in postwar Japan – a condition Truman met after but not before dropping the bombs. His decision to use the atom bomb (which he called the “greatest thing in the world” after radioactively murdering tens of thousands of “Jap” civilians) was about advancing U.S. global power vis-à-vis Russia and the rest of the world in the post-WWII era. It was not about saving American or Japanese lives.

The Cold War Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations’ determination to use nuclear weapons as a tool of unilateral imperial advancement hatched a nuclear arms race that almost turned fatal in October of 1962. We are still living with the consequences of that lethal atomic build-up, which could have been prevented if the U.S. had agreed to put atomic power under responsible international control.

Threat Inflation: “Scaring the Hell Out of the American People”

“Greatest Generation” U.S. planners and policymakers restored fascist power structures in “liberated” Italy and intervened for elite class rule and against popular social revolution in the Balkans. In proclaiming the militantly U.S.-globalist Truman Doctrine, Washington smeared democratic struggles in Greece as a Soviet “Communist” export. It did this to “Scare the Hell out of the American people” (in the wonderful terminology of US Senator Arthur Vandenburg) so they would accept the permanent imperial re-militarization of U.S. society and policy – helping thereby to sustain and expand the powerful “military-industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower left the White House warning Americans about.”

Consistent with that goal, Truman and two key members of his cabinet, including Edwards’ hero Marshall, “systematically deceived Congress and the public into thinking that the USSR was about to launch World Wear III with an invasion of Europe in 1948.” They did this, Frank Kofsky has shown, in order “to push through their foreign policy program, inaugurate a huge military buildup and bail out the near bankrupt airline industry” (Frank Kofsky, Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948 [New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1993]. It was another early example of the well-known Washington game of “threat inflation.”

“Regime Change” in the Post-WWII Era

From the Truman Doctrine on, the basic Cold War pattern was set for the U.S. subversion of democracy and national independence across the planet. Some of the most egregious subsequent examples came in Iran (CIA coup 1953), Guatemala (U.S.-sponsored and directed coup and military takeover 1954), Chile (U.S.-sponsored coup and military takeover, 1973), Indonesia (U.S. sponsored military takeover 1965) are just some of the more spectacular examples in a long list. Hundreds of thousands of peasants, workers, leftists and intellectuals paid with their lives for the brutal U.S. covert war against independent development and social justice in the Third World. The Bushcons did not invent U.S.-imposed “regime change.”

“The Interests of Other Nations are an Incident, Not an End”

In the case of Cuba, U.S. Cold War efforts to impose U.S.-friendly regime change helped bring the world close to nuclear war in the fall of 1962. The following year, the then elder liberal statesman Acheson offered an interesting justification for illegal U.S. efforts to undermine the Cuban government. He told the International Society of International Law that no “legal issue” emerges when Uncle Sam is responding to a challenge to his “power, position, and prestige” (Acheson is quoted in Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance [New York: Metropolitan, 2004, p.14).

It was not a novel position. In making the case for a bloody U.S. invasion of Haiti, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing argued that the effective meaning of the Monroe Doctrine was simply that “the United States considers its own interests. The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end” (Lansing is quoted in Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants [Berkely, CA: 1992], p. 11). Wilson agreed, but found it politically unwise to say so publicly. Such sentiments informed Wilson’s military intervention against the Russian Revolution in 1918 and 1919, part of a shameful imperialist record that does not prevent Obama from praising Wilson for supposedly seeing that “it was in America’s interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples.”

The “indispensable nation” (as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright once described the U.S.) has always been for “international law” when that law supports Washington’s concept of U.S. interests. When the law is seen as an obstacle to U.S. designs it has consistently been treated as dispensable by U.S. policymakers.

Who Deterred Who?

When Third World proxies were unavailable or inadequate for the task of deterring democracy in the Third World, U.S. forces intervened directly with truly massive imperial assaults, as in Korea (1950-1954) and Vietnam (1962-1975). The resulting body counts ran well into the millions.

Cuba was spared such direct U.S. intervention largely because the Soviet Union was present to deter the United States from launching a full-scale attack on the Cuban Revolution.

In the U.S.-USSR Cold War relationship, it was the Soviets not the Americans who could most accurately have been described as the power exercising deterrence against a globally ambitious other – a basic truth that is unmentionable outside the officially marginal circles of the Left.

The Real Soviet (and Third World) Menace

Washington consistently justified its post-WWII record of global criminality with a great myth that Edwards and Obama predictably embrace: the Soviet-communist campaign for world conquest. But honest U.S. assessments at the time acknowledged that the real Soviet danger was rather different. It was that the USSR modeled the possibility of independent national development outside the parameters of U.S.-led world-capitalist supervision.

The actual Soviet threat arose not from any Soviet commitment to world revolution (long since abandoned with the defeat of Trotsky) but from “Marxist” Russia’s determination to follow its own path and its concomitant refusal “to complement the industrial economies of the West.”

This refusal was a terrible example for the Third World, as far as Kennan and Acheson et al. were concerned. The illusory specter of the Soviet quest for “world domination” and the related “domino theory” were always covers for the real specter haunting “Greatest Generation” planners: the danger that peripheral states would follow their own road of development, outside and against the selfish “needs’ of the inherently noble industrial-democratic (state-capitalist) core, run by and for the United States.

“Our Real Task”

To grasp some of the “hardheaded realism” behind the such supposedly sensible and benevolent U.S. Cold War policies as the sponsorship of vicious military dictatorships in Indonesia, Iran, Greece and Brazil (to name just a few “Free World” partners), we can consult an interesting formulation from Obama’s wise “Wilsonian” hero Kennan. As Kennan explained in Policy Planning Study 23, crafted for the State Department planning staff in 1948:

“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…to do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better…We should not hesitate before police repression by the local government” (Quoted in Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, pp. 9-11).

The Marshall Plan, the U.S. reconstruction project for the war-ravaged European core, was loaded with selfish imperial content. U.S. assistance was predicated on investment and purchasing rules that favored U.S.-based corporations and on the political marginalization of Left parties that had gained prestige leading the fight against fascist forces the U.S. had initially appeased and even welcomed as counters to the European Left. U.S. forces stood ready to intervene directly in the event of Left electoral victories in Western Europe.

Throughout the war against fascism – a war won primarily by the workers, soldiers and peasants of the Soviet Union – U.S. planners worked behind the scenes to make sure that the U.S. would emerge as the unchallenged hegemon in the world investment and trading system.

“The Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World”

So much for Truman and Acheson et al.’s “humility regarding America’s ability to control events [and developments] around the world.” And so much for their determination to resist “imperial temptations.”

This unpleasant history provides some background for understanding the America where I grew up as a young boy in the 1960s – an imperial nation whose moral hypocrisy seemed to chill the hearts of almost everyone I knew. We followed Martin Luther King, Jr. in observing that the U.S. government had become “the leading purveyor of violence in the world” and in thinking that government had no business lecturing others on “freedom” when its own domestic landscape was fractured by what the great civil rights leader called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic inequality and militarism.


Moving to more recent events, NATO and Clinton’s assault on Yugoslavia in 1999 is a much less noble story than Edwards claims to believe. Expressing Washington’s timeworn determination to “choose military solutions when diplomatic ones were possible,” it led to masses of unnecessary deaths. Thousands of ethnic Albanians paid a severe price when the U.S.-ordered bombing escalated the pace of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Prior to the air attack, the U.S. and NATO and presented flatly impossible “peace” terms at Rambouillet. Clinton’s proposal to Serbia included NATO control of all of Kosovo and NATO military occupation of all the rest of Yugoslavia. The Serbian National Assembly’s counterproposal for negotiations leading to wide-ranging Kosovo autonomy was ignored by U.S. policymakers and dominant U.S. war media. The bombing of Yugoslavia, including the Serbian capital Belgrade, produced untold civilian casualties. Weapons containing depleted uranium were used to terrible effect against the Serbian people.

Meanwhile the Clinton administration and that supposed noble humanitarian agency the United Nations continued to impose U.S-led “economic sanctions” that killed more than a million Iraqis and weakened domestic Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein.

As Noam Chomsky noted in 2000, “the rogue state doctrine” of the Reagan and Bush I administrations “remained in force when the Democrats returned to the White House.” That doctrine reserved the United States’ right to contravene international law whenever it liked. Clinton embraced it when he “informed the United Nations in 1993 that the US will act ‘multilaterally when possible, but unilaterally when necessary,’ a position reiterated a year later by UN Ambassador Madeline Albright and in 1999 by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who declared that the US is committed to ‘unilateral use of military power’ to defend vital interests, which include ‘ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources,’ and indeed anything that Washington might determine to be within its ‘domestic jurisdiction.’”

“The contempt of the world’s leading power for the framework of world order has become so extreme,” Chomsky noted in the aftermath of the bombing of Serbia, “that there is little left to discuss. While the Reaganites broke new ground, under Clinton the defiance of world order has become so extreme as to be of concern even to hawkish policy analysts. (Chomsky, Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs [Boston MA: South End Press, 2000], pp. 3, 47).

Along with the grisly Cold War record treated above and continued under Reagan and Bush I, Clinton’s policies help us understand why the United States was feared and loathed across the world well before Bush II seized power and invaded Iraq. Even the arch-reactionary and hawkish Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington became concerned by Clinton’s aggressive imperialism. He wrote a Foreign Affairs article noting that the U.S. was “becoming the rogue superpower” in the eyes of the world’s people, who saw the U.S. as “the single greatest external threat to their societies.”


It is questionable how discontinuous Bush’s reckless foreign policy is with the imperial practices and doctrines of the “liberal” Greatest Generation and the neoliberal Clinton administration. It is just as questionable how different the Democratic Party’s current foreign policy positions are from those of the current War Criminal in Chief. As Tuft’s University political scientist Tony Smith notes in a recent Washington Post commentary: “Although they now cast themselves as alternatives to President Bush, the fact is that prevailing Democratic doctrine is not that different from the Bush-Cheney doctrine.”

Smith’s analysis merits lengthy quotation:

Many Democrats, including senators who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, embraced the idea of muscular foreign policy based on American global supremacy and the presumed right to intervene to promote democracy or to defend key U.S. interests long before 9/11, and they have not changed course since. Even those who have shifted against the war have avoided doctrinal questions.

…without a coherent alternative to the Bush doctrine, with its confidence in America’s military preeminence and the global appeal of ‘free market democracy, the Democrats’ midterm victory may not be repeated in November 2008. Or, if the Democrats do win in 2008, they could remain staked to a vision of a Pax Americana strikingly reminiscent of Bush’s.

Democratic adherents to what might be called the ‘neoliberal’ position are well organized and well positioned. Their credo was enunciated just nine years ago by Madeleine Albright, then President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state: ‘If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further into the future.’ She was speaking of Bosnia at the time, but her remark had much wider implications.

Since 1992, the ascendant Democratic faction in foreign policy debates has been the thinkers associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). Since 2003, the PPI has issued repeated broadsides damning Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, but it has never condemned the invasion. It has criticized Bush’s failure to achieve U.S. domination of the Middle East, arguing that Democrats could do it better.

… these [Democratic] neoliberals are nearly indistinguishable from the better-known neoconservatives…Sources for many of the critical elements of the Bush doctrine can be found in the emergence of neoliberal thought during the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. In think tanks, universities and government offices, left-leaning intellectuals, many close to the Democratic Party, formulated concepts to bring to fruition the age-old dream of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’ These [Democratic] neolibs advocated the global expansion of ‘market democracy.’ They presented empirical, theoretical, even philosophical arguments to support the idea of the United States as the indispensable nation [, helping provide] …the intellectual substance of much of the Bush doctrine…

Dealing with Serbia in the 1990s cemented the neocon-neolib entente. By Sept. 11, 2001, these two groups had converged as a single ideological family. They agreed that American nationalism was best expressed in world affairs as a progressive imperialism. The rallying call for armed action would be promoting human rights and democratic government among peoples who resisted American hegemony.

And so we may appreciate the Democrats’ difficulty in their search for an exit strategy not only from Iraq but also from the temptations of a superpower.

… There is a precedent for the Democrats’ dilemma as 2008 approaches. When Richard M. Nixon ran for president 40 years ago, he, too, needed to formulate a policy that distinguished him from the unpopular war in Vietnam prosecuted by an unpopular Democratic administration. He promised that ‘a new leadership will end the war,’ hinting that he had a secret plan to do so. But it turned out that Nixon’s ‘new leadership’ was as committed to prevailing in Southeast Asia as Lyndon B. Johnson had been.

(Tony Smith, “It’s Uphill for the Democrats: They Need a Global Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq,” Washington Post, 11 March, 2007, p. B01, available online at 2007/03/09/ AR2007030901884_pf.html).

Smith’s reflections provide some useful context for Edwards’ insistence on maintaining U.S. military superiority – not remotely threatened by any nation or coalition on earth – and for Edwards’ reference to America’s alleged mission of spreading “freedom across the globe.”

Smith also provides background for the following statement in Edwards’ CFR address: “once we are out of Iraq, the U.S. must retain sufficient forces in the region to prevent a genocide, deter a regional spillover of the civil war, and prevent an Al Qaeda safe haven. We will most likely need to retain Quick Reaction Forces in Kuwait and in the Persian Gulf. We will also need some presence in Baghdad, inside the Green Zone, to protect the American Embassy.”

Beneath claims of humanitarian and anti-terrorist concern, Edwards does not call for full withdrawal from the occupied nation or the region. He proposes to adjust, not reject Washington’s imperial presence in the super-strategic because fabulously oil-rich Middle East. The U.S., he feels, must stand ready to strike in and against a region we claim the special right to police and colonize for a reason neither he nor any of the Democratic candidates except Kucinch and Gravel can acknowledge given dominant Washington and media “taboos.”

That reason is the American Empire’s perceived need to deepen its control of the Middle East’s stupendous oil reserves, which Cold War icon George Kennan once rightly described as the “greatest strategic material prize in history.” Domination of that “prize,’ Kennan noted – in a Greatest Generation formulation fit for Obama’s ponderous “awe” – would give the U.S. de facto political-economic “veto power” over leading industrial competitors in the world system.

Smith’s analysis also provides some context for Edwards’ comment that “the worst thing about [Bush’s] Global War on Terror approach is that it has backfired – our military has been strained to the breaking point and the threat from terrorism grows.”

That is an unfortunate formulation. The worst thing about Bush’s foreign policy is that it has killed more than 700,000 Iraqis, a not-so-little detail that helps explain why millions around the world and especially in the Middle East will not mourn when the United States is hit by its next 9/11 – an eventuality that the Clintons are now saying will “probably” happen shortly “after the next president is sworn in” (Karen Tumulty and James Carney, “Hillary Pushes Back,” Time, May 7, 2007, p. 43).

Imperial doctrine forbids honest recognition of the extent of U.S. violence inflicted on officially “unworthy victims” on the wrong side of Uncle Sam’s inherently noble and “freedom”-loving guns.

America’s longstanding “imperial temptations” are alive and well on both sides of the corporate-imperial party system. This is no small part of why the Democrats can’t muster meaningful opposition to Bush’s Iraq War policy. Their inability and/or refusal to acknowledge the Iraq invasion’s criminal, immoral, mass-murderous and imperial nature makes them vulnerable to the charge of “losing Iraq.”


Maybe it’s because my formal academic training is in History, but I think there’s an intimate relationship between bad history, bad politics and bad policy. As Tariq Ali notes in the latest issue of Z Magazine:

“It’s been obvious for some time, certainly since the end of the Cold War, that throughout the world, history has been either rewritten or forgotten. Many crucial things that happened in the 20th century have been airbrushed out. This is something that irks a lot of people, especially in the Arab world where a sense of history is quite strong. Much of what is going on in the world today has historical roots. One has to go back and see what these roots are because, unless you do, there is no way of solving some of the problems that affect the world” (Ali and David Barsamian, “Jihad: Theirs and Ours,” Z Magazine [June 2007], p. 45).

(Readers should note the parallel with Chris Hedges argument that western Christians’ need to stop airbrushing the Bible if they want to stop avoiding the Bible’s uglier passages if they want to “assuage the fears of the Islamic world that Christians are calling for its annihilation.”)

A policy maker who denies the existence and/or relevance of past racism is not a good candidate to seriously address racial oppression in the present. A politician, journalist or citizen who knows nothing or wrong things about the history of European fascism and the Nazi regime (initially welcomed by U.S. foreign policymakers) is not in a good position to intelligently evaluate George W. Bush’s effort to equate Saddam Hussein with Adolph Hitler and the so-called “Axis of Evil” with the fascist Axis of the 1940s.

A candidate or office-holder who thinks the American historical story is one of endless progress and opportunity, classlessness, democracy and gentle cultural melding is not in a good position to meaningfully represent, understand and serve disadvantaged people or advance justice and democracy in the present and future.

U.S. presidential hopefuls who trumpet whitewashed perspectives on past U.S. imperialism are candidates to advance “rogue superpower” behavior in the future.

Christians seeking to advance a morally respectable version of their faith must acknowledge and repudiate scriptural passages that justify and promise mass messianic-militarist devastation for supposed spiritual enemies. In a similar vein, moral politicians who wish to change the dangerous and authoritarian course of current messianic-militarist U.S. foreign policy must acknowledge and then repudiate past and current U.S. imperial crimes.

Those in global power who fail to acknowledge the imperial crimes of the past are likely to repeat them.


Acknowledging those crimes, I suspect, means dropping the arrogant imperial assumptions that the United States’ “answer” is “the world’s hope” and that the “world” is ours to “inherit.” It means asking more, listening more and telling less when interacting with the world beyond our borders.

It also means taking an honest look in the mirror. With a deeply and increasingly unequal domestic society still badly damaged by Martin King’s “triple evils” and by what the New Left historian William Appleman Williams called “Empire as a Way of Life,” we have no business trumpeting ourselves as a potential “beacon” to anyone. The repair of broken societies and failed states begins at home.

Paul Street ( is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jenny Perry said on June 2nd, 2007 at 9:41am #

    Regarding: John Edwards, Barack Obama and the Myth of Post-WWII U.S. Benevolence “Imperial Temptations” by Paul Street

    In all honesty, there exists the same type of language that speaks of imperial temptations, in the Koran, and even in any Marxist polemic. So you’re being less than genuine when you single the bible out for such criticism.

    Face it, these arguements are less in the interest in bringing about peace and making the world a safer and saner place to live in. The moral relativism that turns a blind eye to genocide, the oppression of the most powerless in other countries, attempting to hide behind the lie of not wanting to judge based on “culture” is little different than what the religious right does.

    Let’s start by demanding that all start by taking a moral inventory, and then let’s talk, shall we? Because otherwise all you achieve is nothing more than partisan bickering.

  2. Michael Kenny said on June 3rd, 2007 at 6:47am #

    There’s a lot of concentration in the US on WWII but US meddling in Europe goes back to American entry into WWI in April 1917. By the end of 1916 both, largely evenly-matched, sides were on their knees. Without American intervention, there would have had to be a negociated peace in 1917, far less harsh on Germany than the Treaty of Versailles. Equally, with the war over, the democratic revolution in Russia would not have been overthrown by the communists. Without US intervention, therefore, there would have been no Hitler, no Holocaust, no Stalin, no gulags, no WWII, no Cold War, no NATO. It was widely believed in Europe after WWI, that the continent had been manoeuvred into war by the Jews for their own profit. Whether or not their is any truth to that belief, the reasons for US entry into the war seem to be utterly cynical and commercial. Concentration on WWII, as if Hitler had dropped out of the sky into a smiling, happy Europe, hides the real extent of the wrong America has done to Europe over the last 90 years.

  3. ExPat said on June 3rd, 2007 at 1:50pm #

    The fact of the matter is this: Regardless of party affiliation or political ideology – they’re AMERICAN politicians. The relentless quest to “spread freedom and democracy” around the world is and always will be a political agenda and/or earmark.

    Neocon or neolib – their all American politicians.

    Ideology is irrelevant when you’re amongst the most powerful in the world.

  4. Tim D said on June 6th, 2007 at 8:31am #

    If John Edwards wanted to really impress upon us his concern for the poor and needy, he could sell his multi-million dollar house and donate that money to charities working with the people of the “other America”. I’m sorry, but the man is all bluster and rhetoric. Check out these articles by WSWS:

  5. Adam said on June 6th, 2007 at 4:09pm #

    Tony Smith, “It’s Uphill for the Democrats: They Need a Global Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq,” Washington Post, 11 March, 2007

    This article’s URL is now:

  6. Alan MacDonald said on November 13th, 2007 at 10:07am #

    Both Paul Street (and Tony Smith) reference the academic and intellectual swing toward dismissing any seriousness to the Bush PR pap of ‘democracy promotion’, and clearly see the common strains of imperialist strategy in this common con by both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives.

    However, I would suggest two points:

    1. The intellectual father for this common neo-lib and neo-con excuse for aggressive democracy promotion (and particularly democratic ‘market’ promotion) sits squarely with Francis Fukuyama (1992 “End of History”).

    Thus the most compelling proof that this conceptual theory is now bankrupt can be easily made by simply referencing the fact that Fukuyama has done a full 180 degree turn (most notably in his 2006 recant “America at the Crossroads”).

    2. The fall to ‘imperialist temptations’ is not that of any American Empire, but rather the first modern post-nation-state empire (as Paul Kennedy might say); the global corporatist Empire hiding (in plain sight) behind this façade of ‘Vichy America’.

    Precisely, (and ironically) because the global or western capitalist Empire has sketched its Orwellian propaganda based on such absurdities as Bush’s ‘democracy agenda’ and most notably ‘democratic markets’, the fingerprints of this Empire are clearly that of a supra-national corporatist Empire and NOT an American Empire.

  7. JoAnnCr said on December 25th, 2007 at 7:11pm #

    Think about it, Tim D. What would it do for John Edwards to sell his house and give it to the poor? Even if it is worth two digit millions, that would not go very far.

    If he becomes president, however, he can offer health care, college, jobs, tax fairness, second chance high school diplomas and more to give the poor a leg up.

    “Give a man a fish and he eats for one day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”

  8. FrustratedPatriot said on May 25th, 2008 at 10:45pm #

    In ten years time we could be totally energy independent using the modalities of solar and wind power. Our own oil, natural gas and coal reserves could take up the slack. Using only American engineering talent, capital investment, labor, and raw materials, we could establish complete energy independence from foreign sources. The reason we haven’t already accomplished this goal has to do with buck worshipping traitors on both sides of the aisle. Apparently, the status quo will prevail, illogical as it is, until our energy consuming backs are against the wall. By then, I expect the Chinese to be ahead of us in the development of clean, renewable energy. I love my country, the land of the spitting Ted Williams and the hippie Manny Ramirez. As we learn to march in ever straighter lines, we are nudging ourselves, like lemmings, ever closer to the cliff. How can aging hippie like myself be so ahead of my neighbors in desiring independence and health for my country?