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John O'Kane

John O'Kane

Posted: January 17, 2010 10:25 PM

Who's the Enemy?

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Obama's Nobel acceptance speech was an embarrassing justification for the potential of war to produce peace. If the committee had voted after his decision to boot up the Afghan war, would he have gotten the prize? Not judging by the committee's explanation: it voted to affirm Obama's desire to achieve peace! Like many of us, their view of what our speechmaker represents was quite different weeks after the election.

Offensive wars are the only kind we've had since WWII, the last good defensive one that transferred the empire from Britain to us. The subsequent ones have been about maintaining and expanding our inheritance. As the inheritor, ever protective of property rights, we've exercised our prerogative to intervene when and where necessary to justify them. We've justified this behavior with the idea that we're exceptional. The rules and regulations that bind others don't apply to us. We're a special nation driven by god's directives. We don't start wars, we finish them. We use violence only as a last resort.

The ideals we attach to this superior status help keep it that way: freedom, democracy, access to the good life by anyone with the gumption to go for it, those that brought immigrants here ready to melt away their accents. Though hardly perfect, America was the most successful experiment devised for including the ordinary person.

Yet our inherited empire became an albatross, especially with the Cold War. We exported these ideals to receptive global citizens but they were packaged with power trips to win the war and keep the empire viable, discrediting them through inconsistent and contradictory actions. We began policing the globe for good guys and bad guys, supporting repressive, non-democratic regimes when necessary. This has hardly helped our image. And our constant need to defend the empire has required more bases and involvement in other countries' affairs, fostering resentment and even vengeance, requiring more involvement.

This vicious cycle has been especially evident since the end of the Cold War, when terrorism began to surface. But the enemies are now not bound to states and they're lashing out with greater vengeance against the effects of a world transformed by dominating empires. The absence of the Soviets gives us a confident boost to extend our influence, and many more bad guys to police. This has given us the ability to shape the world with our ideals, but at the very time when these ideals are also widely diverging from reality, when American society has become more exclusive, less accessible to those it was designed to include, raising questions about why we're fighting, and especially the enemy's identity.

Hypocrisy flourished early. In the final throes of WWII Ho Chi Minh and Joe Stalin were our allies against fascism and its evils: racial and social superiority, imperial expansion and political repression. But then Ho proved dispensable once the war ended. We took the weapons in the possession of the Japanese and transferred them to the French, giving them the means to get back their previous colony. And when Ho defeated the French in 1954, we replaced them. Vietnam had become a pawn in the Cold War, especially after 1949 when its neighbor China went Communist.

The Soviets became our enemy immediately after WWII, their territorial grab and acquisition of nuclear weapons threats too difficult to ignore. But the Cold War brought a polarized world and the imperative to defeat them at any cost. This often involved the toppling of democratic regimes and their replacement with authoritarian ones to build a network, like in Iran in 1953, or in Allende's Chile on 9/11/73 when George Bush's father was the CIA director. Allende made progress in improving conditions for people, reversing the effects of the repressive Latin American military model. His successor Pinochet brought it all back with our support.

The Soviets were a definite threat, vowing to bury us militarily. And early on we didn't see that their economic challenge to capitalism was very weak when stacked against their framers' goals and the people's expectations. It exploited workers and instituted a new class. But our anti-communism had a pathological side which prevented us from seeing what it was and what this blindness meant.

The real threat was in their idea of equality, a notion so averse to what Americans believe that we became irrationally fixated on Communism as an extraordinary evil. We lost sight of the big picture, plotted its existence as a western and proceeded to go after the bad guys. Like the terrorists of today, they couldn't have a politics. It was simply an evil, inauthentic system.

What got our goat was the state directing change from above in the lives of ordinary folks to improve their life chances and create more freedom and opportunity. Since in industrialized societies power and resources tend to accumulate into the hands of the few, there needs to be a visible hand to guide the process. Inequality ratchets up without it, giving those who have better connections an unfair boost.

We also sympathize with the plight of ordinary folks, but factor these matters out of the picture. State action spells the restriction of freedom in a society whose mythical basis is the ability of individuals to transform structures from below. Our equality goes to the issue of opportunity, the chance to outdo someone else, be more equal. Our origins are steeped in the myth and reality of mobility, the momentum of moving on and beyond yourself and your neighbor. That's why we're classless!

Theirs went to the issue of results, the authority of the state to do what's necessary to make more folks equal at the end of the day. This led to unfair leveling and restrictions on freedom for sure. But our version was flawed, since the opportunities to be seized in the race were far from equally accessible in the absence of public action. In fact, Communism emerged to solve this paradox of freedom and fairness that plagues capitalism. Unfortunately it didn't.

Our Vietnam experience, the proxy war against the Soviets, showed that we were blind to solutions as well.

If we entered Vietnam with a justifiably moral purpose, the extended time there, which ended in defeat, effectively revised the story that sustains the "American Way." The atrocities, the masses of civilians killed to prop up an undemocratic regime, the racism towards the Vietnamese, the negative impact on the home front from the mammoth transfer of resources away from needed programs (the effective start of the fraying of the safety net), and from the war-debt spiral that spiked inflation and inaugurated the long march against the middle class, all of this trashed a generation's hopes in search of the American Dream.

Yet if we had some sense of shame when we exited in defeat, that soon changed. The movie mythology kicked in; Rambos were everywhere, refusing to surrender and selling patriotism like snake oil. We fought the commies to defend the ideals of our accidental empire, gaining the world in the bargain, but losing the moral ground on which it was struck.

So in one of the first signs of empire trouble, the Iran Hostage Crisis in '79, we discover the enemies of the future. This crisis occurred on the cusp of Vietnam revisionism, and the ascendance of the new right's bellicose rhetoric and policies that produced Reagan's victory. So it's no surprise how his administration reacts. During the final stages of the Cold War in the 80s it plied the pressure wherever possible to defeat the Soviets. And it's the Soviets' war in Afghanistan, their Vietnam, where most of the energy was directed. But it was our actions there that politicized radical Islam and allowed, according to Robert Scheer, a strain of that fanaticism to take over after the Soviet loss. Our backing of Bin Laden's "freedom fighters," giving arms and advice to "future terrorists," planted the foundation for the conflict-ridden post-Cold War era.

We've come a long way from the good war to stop Hitler by the time the Cold War expires. Clinton inherited a great opportunity for change. We were suddenly free, for the first time since the Cold War, from having to blindly produce nukes at such great expense to the public welfare. We'd demonstrated, in Francis Fukuyama's infamous verbiage from the era, that our mix of capitalism and democracy was superior and we were ready to remap societies in our image.

Yet Clinton was another weak liberal. Like Obama -- no surprise that he chose so many of his team for his own! -- he found new enemies to replace the old. The war budget barely changed. He became a deficit hawk, making those who had yet to realize the American Dream pay for it. He inherited massive budget deficits from Reagan and Bush's father but responded only to their effects, not the causes.

These new enemies were such a big threat to our freedom that we had to redefine "welfare" to help balance the budget while maintaining security. AFDC was trashed mid-decade for TANF, a new welfare law that eliminated entitlement and the years benefits could be collected, basically redefining the concept of welfare as a punitive one, blaming individuals for their plight. Yet there was no attention to corporate welfare, or the dismantling of the progressive tax system in the Reagan years that freed up millions to the rich and shifted the relative tax burden onto the lower and middle classes, monies that when combined with the gargantuan outlays for weapons to beat the Soviets required considerable sacrifices on the domestic front.

Likewise with Obama. He's inherited massive budget deficits from Bush but is being frugal mostly when it comes to spending that can benefit people victimized by the recession. Military spending and bank bailouts are obviously exempt. He's waffled on his promise to restore progressivity to the tax code, and specifically reverse the Bush tax cuts from early-to-mid decade, due to expire in 2012, that forced the administration to fund the Iraq War with new debt. This amount would wipe out the deficit.

And we were already paying considerably for these transfers during the Bush years in a virtual absence of infrastructural development, and in policies that didn't return the increased productivity to workers in the form of higher wages. Now we'll pay even more dearly on the domestic front with the huge transfers to banks and for the amped up Afghan War.

Does the end justify war against noncombatants at home and abroad (the staggering number of civilians killed!). We rationalize our intervention by claiming it will make us and the rest of the globe safer down the road. But given the growing chasm between rich and poor nations, as well as that between haves and have-nots within this country, and the pressure of aspiring societies to follow the same paths, more conflict and misery are likely along the way.

What happens after those 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan are eliminated? Can that possibly be the end of terrorism?

It's not likely the Iranians will forget our toppling of their democratically elected leader in '53; or that we accidentally shot down one of their civilian airliners in the 90s. How many terrorists were created by the first Iraq War? Our decision to drop Bin Laden once the Afghan war against the Soviets ends in the 80s? Are we creating terrorists now in Yemen with our expanded air war? Was the botched Northwest incident blowback from this expansion?

Glenn Greenwald suggests that our actions overseas in stepping on toes and exacting endless revenge have played into the hands of our enemies and helped them recruit. The deaths experienced in the areas where we are now militarily committed, especially those of innocent civilians, help turn the tide of sentiment away from us. The deeper our flawed interventions go, the more enemies we create.

How many terrorists has globalization created? It uproots cultures, forcing people from their communities in search of scarce jobs that don't pay enough to survive. But one of Clinton's main reasons for maintaining our military bases around the globe when he took office -- 856 the current count -- was to keep areas safe for business! Why is there so little support from indigenous populations for keeping them. We're not perceived as liberators spreading good values and democracy, but invaders and occupiers out for our own interests. Our bases breed crime, especially rape. The culture around bases thrives on bars and prostitution, not exactly a sales pitch for a country in the business of converting others to the best way.

Can God really be watching over us and our foreign policy? With the emergence of radical Islam, God gets a new lease on life. We've always felt he was on our side, which allowed us to go with confidence at the godless Communists. But our new enemies have God on their side!

There's bad guys out there, but it's hard to believe that our Christian conversion machine is a force for much good. Taking Christ against the godless commies is one thing, but the religious compulsions fueling our hot wars are different. Ever since the PNAC-fueled mandate to get our adversaries before they get us, core of the Bush Doctrine, we're not following godly ideas, but playing god through the grace of necon values. The fundamentalist assault against non-Christians that drives us in our wars fits all too well into the corporate pecking order. And its missionary spirit's closer to the Crusades.

The administration's claim that if we make a firm stand against "terrorism" now, it will cease to exist but that if we don't, our military commitment will have to be greater down the road, is propaganda pressured from those with economic interests in it: the weapons producers and the employment tentacles they command, the private security mercenaries pigging out at the contract-troughs, etc. It's been over eight years since the 9/11 attacks and we still haven't had a good debate about terrorism. How have we occupied a country this long with such little success?

If the network of terrorists is international, won't our presence only push them elsewhere? Won't our occupation further destabilize the region? It's in Pakistan where the pockets of jihad extremists lie, according to Robert Gates on This Week recently.

What will it take to break the vengeance cycle? How many multiples of the 9/11 casualties do we need to produce for trump? That atrocity has left a legacy of billions of dollars in wasted resources. The continued pressure of an outside threat has taken away our freedoms. It has virtually transformed the way we live, and produced a massive warrior culture. Ximena Ortiz suggests that wars are nearly impossible to quit when the policies that drive them are the result of a wounded ego. And these policies have drug our country down, "eroding the qualities that distinguished it from the rest of the world" (American Conservative, 12/08/09).

But if we're reliving the vengeance cycle to salve our pride, this has nicely doubled as a pretext for extending our influence. Just like the recession has helped corporations weaken labor, the terrorists that never seem to go away help justify our presence and prop up our dwindling share of the global economy. Our new bases are mostly located near oil reserves and cheap labor pools, according to Chalmers Johnson.

For Mike Whitney it's all about establishing a "beachhead in Central Asia to oversee the growth of China, to execute disruptive/covert operations against Russia, to control vital pipeline routes from the Caspian Basin, and to maintain a heavy military presence in the most critical geopolitical area in the world today."

And there's the link to the domestic scene. There's a prophetic film from the mid-80s, "Brazil" by Terry Gilliam, where the society of the near future has coexisted with terrorism for 13 years. People have become so used to violence that they continue with their activities even when bombs explode in public places. Yet no one ever sees a terrorist! The society continues to police the poor and invade peoples' privacy.

Will the booting-up of the Afghan war goose-up the already considerable steps the Obama administration has taken to police the victims of the recession: letting Sheriffs paper-process foreclosures while passing cash to Wall Street; mandating those who can't afford health insurance to buy it under penalty of law, etc. And to crack down on dissent at home. The war at home is heating up. There's been an outpouring of rage about sending more troops to Afghanistan at a time when our economy is in shambles, badly in need of investment and jobs programs. Does Obama-the-hawk encourage us to be quiet, accept fate? Bush used 9/11 to get his neoliberal agenda passed. Is Obama outdoing Bush in eroding more of the American Way?

We should continue doing good things globally, and rooting out the bad guys and enemies to the kind of freedom and democracy that reflects the best of what America stands for. Yet we also need to face that there are enemies here to the best that America can be and has been, those who too easily rush to judgment and dominate others. Rooting them out will help break the habit of quickly resorting to aggression. We need to fulfill the spirit of Martin Luther King that Obama ignored in his speech: violence breeds violence, and it is only through setting a better example and including more people in society that you convert others to the best way. If we treat innocent citizens at home and abroad with the respect that's consistent with true democracy, we won't be seen as the enemy and can make progress in achieving peace and justice.

It's the good Christian idea that King found in John of the Cross: "Have a great love for those who contradict and fail to love you, for in this way love is begotten in a heart that has no love. God so acts with us, for He loves us that we might love by means of the very love He bears toward us."

But can there be a benevolent empire? Can ours be reformed? If so, we might look to Germany, the prime example of a country that marginalized the people while inflating and distorting the rhetoric of populism, all in service to expanding empire. Their enemies to the people were finally rooted out, and in most extreme fashion and with horrific consequences. What's remarkable is how Germany has adapted. From a rabidly exclusionist regime dedicated to eliminating the left and the communists during the twenties, it has become more inclusive and politically diverse.

The 1968 generation of German students was devoted to confronting the Nazi past and especially rooting out fascism. It took much effort and time to accomplish this, given that the parents from the Hitler years were reluctant to face what had happened. And the younger generation was not that successful, as shown in their terrorist violence and residual anti-Semitism well into the 70s. But that success came when the Cold War ended with an expanded German state. During the 90s it was forced to accommodate its communist other half, and in doing so confront the legacy of fascism whose fundamental fixation -- Hitler's obsession--was the elimination of Communism and the left. The result was the red-green coalition's merger with the established system, a coalition that included activists from the '68 generation, like Joschka Fischer who became foreign minister, and Otto Schily who became the interior minister, both in the 1998 Schroeder government (Hans Kundnani, Utopia or Auschwitz, 2009).

Andrea Merkel's current management of this alliance demonstrates a valuable lesson: that incorporating, rather than excluding voices, neutralizes sectarian extremes and produces a richer diversity of perspectives when democracy is truly practiced. And exclusions breed extremes. When empires become so impressed with their power and the right way, facing few obstacles, they proceed along the logical course that got them there and go for it. And the result is the breeding of stateless terrorists who have no seat at the table and no politics.

And it demonstrates also the value of multiple parties, what distinguishes Germany, and especially Europe, from the US. The inclusion of more voices here from across the spectrum could generate democratic battles that create better and fairer compromises, not those that are so far to the right. The striking convergence of the democrats and republicans, the only two parties, and the exclusion of voices this entails, means that the advocacy for change is already reigned into the center, offering little check on the powers pressured by the interest groups that want and benefit from offensive wars, or the corporate and Wall Street interests that push to exclude so many from the American experiment, all of which would be firmly challenged by Martin Luther King if he were alive today.

Not to suggest Germany possesses the final solution, but its openness to a diplomatic, non-aggressive position on foreign policy is notable, as is its benevolent public response to the effects of the global recession, where jobs programs in league with their already well-developed safety net have helped significantly temper it.

To convert another piece of wisdom from Martin Luther King, if we are to move toward the creation of a better democracy, and eventually produce the paths to reach the promised land, we need to face adversity and admit to our mistakes, otherwise we'll become our own worst enemy!