Standard Imperial Hypocrisy

Reflections on Obama, the World, Libya, and Mass Diversion

Recently on a car trip to New York City,  I tuned briefly into a National “Public” Radio news show called “The World.” A middle-aged newsreader was interviewing a younger female activist in the Middle Eastern island Kingdom of Bahrain, where 1500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had recently arrived to help the kingdom’s Al Khalifa royal family crush democracy protests inspired by the wave of popular rebellion rolling across North Africa and the Middle East.  (Dozens if not hundreds of Bahrain protestors and activists have been killed and disappeared since the foreign soldiers came under the aegis of the “Gulf Cooperation Council” on March 15). The activist decried the presence of Saudi soldiers, lent from one U.S.-sponsored monarchy to another U.S.-sponsored monarchy with obvious authoritarian intent.

“What More Would You Like the U.S. to Do?”

The newsreader stopped the activist short to ask her if she knew that U.S. President Barack Obama had issued a declaration criticizing the infusion of Saudi forces and calling on the Bahrain regime to avoid undue violence and to seek a peaceful political solution. Yes, the activist responded, she was aware of the White House’s proclamation, but she was not impressed. She wanted “The World’s” listeners to know that Bahrain ’s democracy movement required “more than statements” from Washington. The Obama administration’s words were one thing, the activist felt, but what really mattered were its deeds. She mentioned the United States ’ massive financial and military support for highly repressive regimes across the region, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, the Arab Emirates, and, of course, Bahrain, the Middle East ’s leading financial hub and home to the U.S. Navy’s critical Fifth Fleet.

As the activist knew, the Saudi and UAE troops entered Bahrain just one day after U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dined with the Bahraini ruling family in a show of support. Gates refused to meet with pro-democracy protesters who had been marching by the thousands for a month. The royal family “probably bugged [Gates] that they need to use force to suppress this,” Husain Abdulla, director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, told Democracy Now!  “And next day, immediately after he left, the Saudi troops came to Bahrain. This is no coincidence. This is all planned.” Certainly the Obama administration is deeply complicit in the Saudi invasion of supposedly sovereign Bahrain – an incursion that was requested by the Al Khalifa family.

That’s a pretty remarkable thing for “the world’s leading democracy” to green-light. As Amitabb Pal observed on the web site of The Progressive last week:

Imagine if East Germany ’s Erich Honecker had successfully requested a Soviet invasion in 1989. Or, to take a more contemporary example, imagine if Muammar Gadaffi got one of his very few friends to invade in order to defeat the armed rebellion … imagine the global outrage.

The “public” newsreader seemed taken aback by the activist’s critique of Washington . “What more,” she asked the activist, “would you like the United States to do?” The newsreader’s tone communicated exasperation with the impudent notion that the United States was not doing everything it could be reasonably expected to do to defend democracy in Bahrain .

I did not get to hear the activist’s response because the N“P”R station became inaudible as my Honda crossed into the Delaware Water Gap in western New Jersey, but let me imagine a reasonable response based on my elementary grasp of the U.S. role in the region. It might have gone like this: “Well, we’d like the White House to stop sponsoring murder and authoritarianism. We’d like the administration to pick up a telephone and inform its friend, the absolute ruler of Bahrain, that he and his regime will no longer receive military and financial support from the U.S. and its regional allies. We’d like Obama and Hillary Clinton to order their client states, Saudi Arabia and UAE, to remove their troops immediately. We’d like the U.S. to cease and desist from funding and equipping arch-repressive and authoritarian governments across the region. We’d like the U.S. to insist on an end to state violence and the beginning of a transition to popular, democratic governance in Bahrain. We’d like the U.S. to freeze the foreign assets of the king of Bahrain and to tell him that the Fifth Fleet and other military forces intend to protect basic democratic rights in Bahrain.”

All impossible, of course: the last thing the U.S. foreign policy establishment wants to see break out in majority Shia Bahrain and, by demonstration effect, in Saudi Arabia, where Shia Muslims constitute a significant minority population in oil-rich territories. As far as the American imperial elite is concerned, that would potentially threaten U.S. control of, and access to, the Middle East’s hyper-strategic oil reserves, whose greatest material prize falls under the nominal sovereignty of the U.S.-sponsored Saudi monarchy.

Obama’s Own Colonial War

But, of course, there are many places in the world where a simple withdrawal of expensive U.S. support for oppressive regimes would help open the door for democratic liberation. In Honduras, to take one example, the White House and Pentagon under Obama have significantly funded and militarily equipped a thuggish right wing regime that overthrew a democratically elected, left-leaning president (Manuel Zelaya) in the spring of 2009. The administration initially responded to the Honduran putsch with what sounded like words of condemnation but it promptly angered much of the world and most of Latin America by continuing the standard U.S. practice of bankrolling, equipping, training, and running cover for Central and South American reaction, giving the new authoritarian regime the okay to kill, torture, and imprison democracy activists.

The crucifixion of Palestine by Israel continues to receive critical financial and military backing and diplomatic cover from Uncle Sam, who has never sought to enforce a no-fly zone to prevent Israel from bombing children and hospitals in the open air apartheid prison called the Gaza Strip.

Washington continues to fund, train, and equip state repression in the deceptive name of  “the war on Drugs” across Central America — repression that supports Washington-imposed neoliberal trade and investment policies that deepen the extreme poverty that drives so many Latin Americans to seek access to lower ends of the U.S. labor market. This feeds right wing anti-immigrant sentiments on the part of North Americans conditioned to think that Washington has nothing to do with endemic misery south of the Rio Grande. Obama naturally made no effort to undo these core imperial policy continuities during his recent trip to Latin America, which coincided with the launching of his first wholly owned imperial adventure – code-named “Operation Odyssey Dawn” (hereafter “OOD” – which advertising firms come up with these military campaign brandings, anyway?) – in Libya . “What more” could the U.S, do to support democracy? Stop murdering it abroad and at home.

The notion that Uncle Sam is hopelessly hamstrung in terms of what it might do beyond offer nice words in support of freedom and democracy abroad is contradicted by the curious case that has recently grabbed the headlines from Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Wisconsin protestors, and the Japanese earthquake and nuclear crisis — Libya.

Here a recently U.S.-tolerated dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, has been re-declared a grave public enemy to western ideals and his nation has been target-bombed by a U.S.-led “coalition” of “the international community” (selected national elites from the wealthy West) in the enforcement of a no-fly zone. The White House claims that OOD seeks only to protect Libyan citizens, not just Gaddafi, but Hillary Clinton’s recent comment to the effect that the dictator should leave the country certainly suggests that the Bush Doctrine’s notion of imposing regime change (in the name of democracy) on a poor nation that poses no serious risk or imminent danger to the United States1 lives on – along with so much else from the dark days of Dubya – in the “new” age of Obama, the Empire’s New Clothes, who is attacking Libya without the pretense of congressional authorization ((In 2007, candidate Obama was asked the following question when it was feared that the United States was going to attack Iran: Under what circumstances would the president have the constitutional authority to bomb Iran without first seeking authorization from Congress? His answer: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch.” Essentially, Obama said that the president had the authority to act first and seek approval later if there were an imminent threat to the security of the United States and that the president could not order a military attack without the approval of the Congress if a threat to the United States was not imminent. Both statements were accurate but neither applies to the current situation in Libya. They have pretty much disappeared down the Orwellian memory hole as far as many of Obama’s liberal and centrist supporters are concerned. Many of those supporters would likely be complaining about constitutional violations if the Libya venture was being conducted by a President McCain. Likewise, many Republicans would be muzzling the constitutional concerns they are currently voicing if one of their party currently held the title of Commander in Chief. Such is the moral and intellectual level and situational politics of partisan identity and behavior within, and beyond, Washington .
)) that George Bush obtained before assaulting Iraq.

The official reasons given for OOD are out of Bill Clinton’s Serbia and George W. Bush’s Iraq playbooks. They are that the United States is driven by humanitarian and democratic concern for the suffering Libyan people. But what about the millions of other world citizens living under the oppressive rule of sadistic autocrats across Africa and in, for example, the key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, home to perhaps the world’s single most reactionary government? The United States is not moving towards targeted bombings and no-fly zones to protect victims of oppression or to discipline oppressors in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, Israel, or Yemen, where the U.S.-supported president Ali Abdullah Seleh has recently butchered and maimed hundreds of protestors.

The American military and financial aid keeps flowing to unjust rulers in these and numerous other U.S.-backed states. Those rulers and their cronies are not subjected to travel bans and asset freezes and Western-led prosecution for crimes against humanity. They continue to receive official designation as U.S. allies in the “war on terror.”

What supposedly privileges Libyans over and above other victims of tyranny when it comes to the United States supposed goals of freedom protection? And what about the large number of Libyan civilian casualties that can be expected to result from an aerial assault on Tripoli, home to 1.1 million? Couldn’t an U.S. aerial attack actually increase regime violence on the ground? What about the likelihood that imperial assault will result in greater popularity within Libya for the dictator that Washington claims to oppose (on the model of how murderous U.S.-imposed “economic sanctions” and no fly zones deepened Saddam Hussein’s popularity and weakened his opposition inside Iraq )?

What about the unsavory nature of many atop Gaddafi’s hastily formed opposition, who are leading a civil war, not a peaceful people’s uprising on the model of Tunisia, Egypt, Wisconsin, and Bahrain? And what about the distinct possibility that Western military intervention could prolong a bloody civil war in Libya by undermining the opposition’s ability to pursue negotiations and through the instability that large-scale civilian casualties can produce?

These and other problems raise serious questions about the honesty of Washington’s justifications, suggesting that something other than humanitarian and democratic ideals – petroleum-related strategic and political concerns emerging from America’s imperial role in the Middle East – are at play in the design and execution of OOD, Barack Obama’s first full-fledged, non-inherited colonial war. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Just the Opposite…

The left U.S. foreign policy critic Phyllis Bennis has recently noted a dark irony behind many Americans’ support of the Libyan action. That support was premised on the notion that Gaddafi’s successful crushing of his opposition “would send a devastating message to other Arab dictators: Use enough military force and you will keep your job.” Things are working out quite differently, with the American intervention seeming to feed top-down repression, not bottom up rebellion in the Middle East.  As Bennis observes:

Instead, it turns out that just the opposite may be the result: It was after the UN passed its no-fly zone and use-of-force resolution, and just as US, British, French and other warplanes and warships launched their attacks against Libya, that other Arab regimes escalated their crack-down on their own democratic movements….In Yemen, 52 unarmed protesters were killed and more than 200 wounded on Friday by forces of the US-backed and US-armed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was the bloodiest day of the month-long Yemeni uprising…Similarly in US-allied Bahrain, home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, at least 13 civilians have been killed by government forces. Since the March 15 arrival of 1,500 foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, brought in to protect the absolute power of the king of Bahrain , 63 people have been reported missing.

Wag the Dog

The American and western left is currently at some risk of tearing itself up yet more than it is already torn up over the question of how to understand and respond to OOD. My instincts are pretty much always anti-White House and anti-Pentagon when it comes to foreign policy, and I personally can’t get behind even limited support for a no-fly zone in Libya. Still, my desire to get into a finger-pointing and shouting match with “progressives” who offer qualified support to Obama’s new war is inhibited to some degree by my sense that the current imperial extravaganza is taking on a disastrous “wag the dog” aspect in the hands of America ’s dominant Orwellian mass war and entertainment media.

It is diverting public attention from at least three critical and ongoing policy and political issues: the epic state-level state-capitalist assault on public sector workers, organized labor, and working people more generally and the remarkable popular rebellion against that assault within and beyond Madison, Wisconsin; the equally epic nuclear disaster in Japan and the deadly implications of aging and revamped nuclear power operations (horrifying epitomes of the underlying and very possibly exterminst irrationality of the state-capitalist profits system) within and beyond the United States, where a deadly, old, and accident-prone nuclear plant (Indian Point, home to 2 of the nation’s 105 currently operating nuclear power reactors) is located just 30 miles north of the world’s financial capital, New York City; the counter-assault on democratic protests in U.S, sponsored regimes like (to name just three) Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

Even as they steal vast, desperately needed public resources away from the real and potential meeting of social needs and help distribute wealth upwards (to “defense” contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and other elite, high-tech corporate interests) at home ((A recent Huffington Post item reports that “In the opening days of the assault on Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom launched a barrage of at least 161 Tomahawk cruise missiles to flatten Muammar Gadhafi’s air defenses and pave the way for coalition aircraft….In fiscal terms, at a time when Congress is fighting over every dollar, the cruise missile show of military might was an expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Each missile cost $1.41 million, close to three times the cost listed on the Navy’s website…Raytheon Corp. is the manufacturer of the Tomahawk Block IV, a low-flying missile that travels at 550 miles per hour. During a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on the Tomahawk. A year ago, Raytheon boasted of its 2,000th Block IV delivery to the Navy.” See Sharon Weinberger, “Cruise Missiles: The One Million Dollar Weapon,” Huffpost Business (March 25, 2011) at 161 X $1.4 million = $225 million Tomahawk Cruise Missile expenditure in just the early stage of Obama’s Libya adventure, including a nice cost-plus profit for leading “defense” (Empire) contractor, Raytheon. Someone other than I can calculate the social opportunity cost of $225 million as more and more Americans run out of ammunition in the war on economic destitution.)) moreover, imperial adventures and the bloodlust they reflect and promote are great authoritarian populace-diverters and domestic democracy-destroyers – all too consistent with the warnings of American Founding Father James Madison, who observed that:

The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.

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.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on March 26th, 2011 at 8:51am #

    The weakness in the author’s thesis is that the Libya operation is “U.S.-led” and that comes from the assumption that the US rules the world. In fact, the US has been manoeuvred into a war by various European NATO members whose principal interest is to prevent Libya being used as a jumping-off point for illegal immigration into Europe and is doing everything in its ppower to avoid leading the operation! Europe was perfectly happy with Kadaffi. If he had won a quick victory against the rebels, Europe would still be happy with him. But Europe fears a long civil war or Somalia-type anarchy in Libya. It wants a stable government, any stable government, in Libya ASAP so that naval patrols preventing the immigrants from setting sail can be resumed, as has already happened in Tunisia. Whether the method chosen will achieve that goal is, of course, another debate!

  2. Ismail Zayid said on March 26th, 2011 at 10:39am #

    The hypocrisy and double standards practised by Obama and his European allies is manifest in their policies, with particular relevance in the Middle East. Their assault on Libya, claiming to defend lives of civilians in a humanitarian act, contrasts clearly with their deafening silence related to the killing of civilians in Bahrain, Yemen and most blatantly in their support for Israel waging its vicious assault in 2008/09, on Gaza, murdering hundreds of children and innocent civilians and destoying thousands of homes as well as schools and hoaspitals.

    It is time that the world community puts pressure on Obama and his European allies to put an end to their neo-colonialism.

  3. 3bancan said on March 26th, 2011 at 3:10pm #

    I find it amazing how Paul Street can speak about the US policies vis-a-vis the ME and manage to not even mention the elephant in the room – ie the Jewish nazis and their “friends” – that shapes and controls them…

  4. hayate said on March 28th, 2011 at 11:53pm #

    Job security?