This started out as my response, as co-founder of the Free Soil Party 35 years ago, to the State of the Union speech, but developed into a referendum on this Presidency. I conclude it as the Democrats prepare to launch their grand showcase, showing off how they rewrite history and make promises they will not keep. I invite a real debate, here and now, about issues of real relevance, with no issue off the table. I dare anyone to read this through and then defend President Obama. I mean by defend, respond to the charges I have laid out, not bring up barely related things I did not choose to mention, which may seem overlooked and relevant to you, but evasive to an independent observer. My response should be a book, but is beyond the scope of this blog and my free time.
The President was in full campaign mode for his State of the Union speech, complete with theatrics, guests such as the widow of Steve Jobs and the secretary of Warren Buffett as props to illustrate his points, and stirring invocations of patriotic fervor. Perhaps stung by attacks alleging he has apologized for USA, he determined to wrap himself in the flag. He began and ended with comparisons of the teamwork of the military to what the country as a whole could accomplish if it emulated that spirit of teamwork. Given its long history of war crimes and misguided and illegal adventures carried out for dubious reasons, I found his comparison ghastly, yet strangely fitting for the sad state of US politics. He made it sound as if the heroic military of America could do no wrong, and we the people would do well to emulate their example.
The military may seem an example of finely honed cooperation and honor, though I would dispute that on all counts. It is a blunt killing machine, with individual acts of valorous cooperation or honor misdirected and misused. The spin machine must glorify this killing machine and its actions, burying the scandals as isolated bad apples. This marvelous team spirit, focused on noble honorable missions, is the story, which below the surface is just a story that falls apart in face of what is really going down, such as wars cast as necessary self-defense waged to punish regimes such as ruled Iraq and Afghanistan who dared defy big business interests. This team spirit concept grates for military women enduring rampant rape and harassment, which is more or less casually swept under the carpet, recourse even less likely than for women in general. This military is also an example of callous disregard for the lives and rights of those who get in the way. The prison scandals were just the tip of the iceberg. There was the notorious mystery of what really happened to Pat Tillman, the football star who volunteered for Afghanistan, but got disillusioned and shot, supposedly in an accident of friendly fire? Where is the line between opposing US policy and being deemed a terrorist? Protestors and independent journalists risk crossing that boundary, some animal rights and environmental activists have already been designated terrorists, and the recent defense authorization bill has all but revoked the right of dissent for US citizens, who can now be arrested and held without trial indefinitely on the whim of the President who feels the dissenter could present some kind of threat, due process and Constitutional principles be damned in the face of terror. Has the principle of preserving civil liberties in time of war survived the new millennium, with both faces of mainstream politics determined to maintain the established order at home and military supremacy over the world in the name of national security, the economic and social costs no object, or at best secondary concerns? The priorities are all backwards, but that is par for conventional wisdom, its manipulation a fine art practiced by politicians, who call that debating the issues of the day.
The armed forces may display a certain degree of teamwork and courage, but there are more than a few bad apples among them. Their problems are cultural, running deeper than sensationalized scandals such as the missile defenders addicted to porn. When their purpose is serving business interests, calling them heroes does not exonerate their command hierarchy from their war crimes and excessive force, authorized or otherwise, attempts to disassociate American armed forces and values notwithstanding. Was his honoring of soldiers returning from Iraq effectively giving the presidential pardon for what candidate Obama used to call a grave mistake? Does he think he redeemed that mistake by responsibly ending it? War is an institution of primitive origin, the settling of disputes by competition to the death, which should be a last resort, when absolutely necessary for self-defense, the circumstances so dire there can be no alternative, but very few conflicts have met that standard, most certainly not the war on terror. People have brains; they can negotiate a live and let live state of unfriendly competition with their brains instead of fighting it out with killing machines, no matter how high the hostile emotions run. Grievances can be heard and compensated impartially. Obama could have ended the Iraq conquest the day he took office. This may sound impossible, or utopian, but in the war on terror, such ideas have not been near the table; if anything, such talk would be taken as supporting the enemy, heresy, treason? The anti-terrorism laws are intentionally so vague, neutrally interviewing or suggesting diplomacy with someone on the enemies list might earn a place on that list, since in mainstream politics, USA does not negotiate with terrorists, USA brings them down, to the justice of the jungle. People are not incapable of settling disputes without violence, or having a civil society without a creeping fascist police state, but the real problem is a belief system that values power over others, supremacy, dominance, subordination, manipulation, whatever one calls it, violence is elevated into a viable solution to any dispute, people trusting authority acting under its laws to keep violence under control. Obama exudes this belief system, portraying the military and his war on terror as necessary and noble, his halfhearted attempts at diplomacy his style of whitewashing what US policy actually does with its military machine, for what actual purposes. He thinks his macho posturing and intoning America the Greatest sound bytes is Presidential. Perhaps to those of a similar mindset, it is.
Obama began by honoring the warriors who were sent to conquer Iraq:
9:10 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:
Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought — and several thousand gave their lives.
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. (Applause.) For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. (Applause.) For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. (Applause.) Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.
His mention of pride is odd for one who ran for President making much of opposing the Bush foreign policy, calling the war on Iraq a grave mistake. It is as though he puts it on the level of a redeemable strategic error, not an issue of bad policy, moral failing, act of unjustifiable aggression, and violation of important principles and international law, yet it made us safer and more respected around the world. So was it a good or just war, or what? Democrats like to rant about Republican failed policies. Was the Iraqi conquest an exception, after Obama reluctantly officially pulled out the troops to meet the deadline Iraq wrung out of Bush? This is from a Reuters story when he welcomed home some of the last U.S. troops from Iraq at Fort Bragg last month:
Despite lingering questions about whether the United States should have invaded the Middle Eastern country, the last American troops “will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high,” Obama said.
“Of course, Iraq is not a perfect place. But we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” he said.
Iraq is in shambles, its infrastructure in ruins, its soil, water, and air poisoned by US weaponry, including depleted uranium, causing a massive epidemic of rare cancers and birth defects. For that war USA has a legacy of a civilian death count probably well over a million, many more wounded, sick, or displaced there, along with legions of sick and injured veterans getting substandard or no care here. Iraq wishes to be self-reliant, which is why Obama was forced to honor the agreement Bush made with Iraq to withdraw all troops by the end of 2011. Iraq might have negotiated so some could stay, but Obama wanted immunity from prosecution for the troops, which Iraqi leaders rightly found an intolerable imposition, having reasons to expect some troops would deserve prosecution. To say Iraq is stable with a representative government is just hogwash, mission accomplished whistling in the dark, but par for the course for President Obama, following in the grand tradition of the politics of America the Greatest. What rationale could the conquerors of Iraq possibly have to justify holding their heads high? A job well done? Hardly, unless one considers the enrichment of the military industrial complex for laying waste another country to replace an unfriendly tyrant a job well done!
The remaining security force in Iraq is not supposed to be fighting, but their mission is to protect the massive diplomatic corps now tasked to look after US interests. They are certainly equipped to fight; Obama has to hope they will not have to. I imagine there are still plenty of mercenaries under US command or guidance still there, but presumably they are mostly not Americans.
There are no heroes in the war on terror, but plenty of cannon fodder desperate for a job or lured by recruiting lies, risking their lives to serve this country, called to serve the interests of this corporate empire. They have not made USA safer or more respected around the world, quite the contrary, though they have kept USA a force to be feared. Conflating fear with security or respect is a common tactic of leaders with abusive powers to protect. This claim of successes against the Taliban and al Qaeda is more whistling in the dark. Defeated is a curious euphemism for blowing up some enemy leaders, along with many more innocent bystanders and victims of bad intelligence, by missiles from drones invading the territory of nations with whom USA is supposedly not at war, but bad guys lurking within must be exterminated. The war on Afghanistan is a hopeless quagmire, so cooler heads have started to realize the only way out is to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban, which will call the shots as it likes. So much for that broken Taliban momentum. Is it back from the fire to the frying pan for Afghan women, or was their alleged liberation just a cruel joke at their expense? The abuse of women certainly did not end when the Taliban were booted from the reins of power, for their effrontery refusing to turn over a war criminal without any evidence. That was the excuse Bush created to retaliate against Afghanistan, since the nationality of most of the suspects was Saudi Arabian, and Afghanistan harbored training camps and that war criminal Obama is so proud he ordered that raid to shoot on sight. Karzai cares far more about maintaining his tenuous hold on his power than the rights of Afghan women. More about that in this prior entry, Karzai Makes Mockery of Democracy. This more recent article on the sorry state of affairs for Afghan women is from the Christian Science Monitor:
Though Afghan laws exist to protect women, they’re rarely enforced. The United Nations found that in the two years since the passage of a law created to stop violence against women, it has only been used in about 100 cases.
“The majority of young girls and young women I work with do not understand anything about our rights,” says Fatana Ishaq Gailani, founder and chairwoman of the Afghanistan Women Council. “We have a very weak government. They are not thinking about the life of women, most of the work for the women in Afghanistan is for show.”
One of the most devastating blows to the credibility of those assigned to protect the rights of Afghan women in the government came almost two years ago when a court convicted Marhaba Karimi, the former Women’s Affairs director in Kunar province, of torturing and brutally murdering her daughter-in-law.
Afghanistan does not struggle with women’s rights because of the Taliban, rather the Taliban represents an extremist version of rural Afghan social constructs.
As usual, women are being used as pawns to put a nice spin on what USA is doing in Afghanistan. More on that from those experiencing it, Afghan women such as RAWA and Malalai Joya, popular member of Parliament twice kicked out for calling out the warlords running that mockery of democracy. Meanwhile, while a few prominent leaders on the most wanted terrorist list have been killed, along with who knows how many civilians, the will to resist what USA represents is far from broken. The desire for revenge does not weaken when leaders are martyred; it may become less restrained, so to say bin Laden is no longer a threat is to dismiss and deny responsibility for all the reasons he was a threat. I kept a running commentary on the raids on Pakistan, mostly on this page, but there have been so many since Obama took office, I stopped trying to keep up.
That last sentence quoted above, Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example, preludes his idea of what a society that works like the military would look like. The military does not operate at all like civil society or Congress. Does Obama have a problem with that? His premise is offensive to anyone who values liberty, independence, creativity, innovation, and seems to attempt to shame the right to dissent, usually covered under free speech. If Obama cannot handle his problem with other politicians not being willing to work with him, he does not belong in government. Blaming opposition obstruction for the failure of unsound policies, such as bailing out the too big to fail, to revive the economy is ducking responsibility; a fight is expected from the opposition, but does not always cause gridlock. Other Presidents have roused public opinion to support their ideas and put enough pressure on opposition politicians to get them to back down and allow a bill to pass, getting much of their programs through even without majority control of both house of Congress, which Obama had during his honeymoon. People might wonder, who would want a society in the mold of the military? Or is it this attempt to link that with his vision that seems so out of touch with reality?
Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. (Applause.) My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
Rah Rah for our combat heroes and US superiority! I wanted to throw up. I suppose I am not a patriot. I love this planet, compelling me to do what I can to fight for its future, but it was not for nothing Virginia Woolf wrote a woman has no country, her country is the whole world. Regardless, what gall to compare those who fought to stop a league of madmen who thought they could conquer the world, Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and their Axis, to our modern warriors on terror; this is offensive to anyone who realizes there is a vast gulf of differences between a war of necessary self-defense, and a war of choice on enemies of US policy deemed terrorists wherever they may be all over the world. Patriotism is supposed to overwhelm such misgivings, one is supposed to trust the President in this time of perpetual war? I must be defective, maladjusted as Martin Luther King might have said about this zealous loyalty to militarism. I certainly have nothing against top notch education, but what that has to do with militarism is beyond me. His notion of education reform must explain that mystery. High-paying jobs in high-tech? Those jobs are the exception to the rule in this service-based economy, not a high percentage of what is accessible to most. His notion of high tech and energy security is to trust the experts, those scientists for hire who promote clean coal, safe nuclear power, pesticides, herbicides, genetic engineering, advertised pharmaceuticals with downplayed serious side effects, toxic contaminated vaccines conferring partial temporary immunity at best, natural gas fracking, nanotechnology, business as usual all the while scoffing at the precautionary principle, these are all fine and dandy, no problem, they are the experts and everyone should have confidence they know what they are doing! Just like they did at Fukushima by now spreading its radioactive poisons over at least most of the planet. But the proponents of nuclear power say it is clean, safe, and a potential solution to climate degradation. This would be a joke, except that the President and most of Congress agrees with it. If they get their way, there will be new nuclear power plants soon under construction; plans for a few are already underway, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is winking at known problems, asserting US plants are up to standards and freely extending licenses for nukes long past their expected lifetime, as if no lessons from the Japanese disaster need be applied here. Twenty more years for Vermont Yankee despite the state law ordering its shutdown when the license expired, no problem, says the court, since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sees no problem, the state has no right to interfere! One might keep in mind what these coded words, energy security and clean energy, signify to politicians, because they can be made to sound one way and mean another. The idea of rewarding responsibility and hard work is better than coddling irresponsible large institutions who got themselves in financial trouble, for which politicians of both parties are better known. This was one of many turns of phrase that caught me wondering how Obama could say such things with a straight face. The master politician at work, deflecting responsibility for the failures of mainstream economics and politics by talking about the ideal economy, where theoretically contributions by everyone get fair credit and value, translated by conventional wisdom into the modern day corporate meritocracy prizing short-term gain.
The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share — the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. (Applause.) What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.
Here I think Obama is appealing to his base, speaking to the public unrest that sparked the Occupy movement, trying to sound populist, as if he is not one of the elite few rigging the system, enabling themselves to be doing so well. This man talking about fairness once defended a shady real estate development firm against Cook County charging it with refusing to provide heat to tenants in the Chicago winter.
In 1994, Obama appeared in Cook County court on behalf of Woodlawn Preservation & Investment Corp., defending it against a suit by the city, which alleged that the company failed to provide heat for low-income tenants on the South Side during the winter.
This past April Obama, now pretending to be the watchdog of bad business practices, got thrown out rules the Labor Department had suggested to make the most dangerous jobs in farming off-limits for children, exempting family farms. The excuse, as quoted in the July 2012 Public Citizen Health Letter article Obama Administration Sacrifices Children to Keep Agribusiness Happy, was to frame the decision
was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms.
Restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot? When did that economy exist? Not in my lifetime, and I am older than the President. He must mean, under President Clinton, whose legacy it was to have a budget surplus during the Internet bubble, while he got passed such top corporate wishes as NAFTA, GATT, welfare reform, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed the too big to fail banks to get that big and make such risky investments that they should have failed. This is more whistling in the dark, invoking the American dream and values as the defining issue of our time. Sorry, the world is in too much trouble because of how people in power see and manipulate the American dream and values. It was his chance to claim the defining issue of our time; Presidents need to have a plausible vision to be effective at changing anything. Unfortunately for people like me, his vision is more of the same, no real solutions, just pipedreams that sound good while kicking the can down the road until a feminist revolution throws the bums out so women can clean up the mess the old boy network is making of this world. A militaristic police state where the President can get anyone arrested as a terrorist on a whim and held by the military indefinitely without trial is not my idea of change I can believe in, his transparently manipulative signing statement notwithstanding. This master craftsman of spin is still dependent on spin to remain credible. This was a constitutional law professor blatantly violating the Constitution by accepting this power nobody should have under any circumstances in a free country, because that authority fulfills the definition of tyranny. That he will use it wisely, as he says in this signing statement, even if true, has no bearing on how the next President might use it. To accept unconstitutional authority and then renounce the intention to use it is not a wise use of his authority as President, and he knows it. Vetoing the bill on constitutional principles would have forced Congress to back off, since as Obama observed, it was an important bill, so Congress would not want to keep that political hot potato in their court.