The Emperor in Denial

President Obama tries to have it both ways when talking of American foreign policy. He sold himself to the public in 2008 as a more prudential steward of U.S. power. He would avoid “dumb wars,” as he had called the Iraq fiasco in a speech years before. He would save money by bringing the troops home from that place, and direct the resources toward the domestic fiscal mess. He would abolish torture and end the Bush-era programs of indefinite detention and Patriot Act–style surveillance.

We all know that he’s disappointed many of his supporters in the realm of national security. The letters, “N S A,” tell us all we need to know. The truth, however, is that Obama has always embraced a very active role for U.S. militarism abroad, which puts serious limits on his ability to serve as a peace president, even if he wanted to. Indeed, in his speech to the UN, he denies the existence of American empire and cautions against too much restraint:

The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion. Indeed, as the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed, the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war; rightly concerned about issues back home; and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

It is true that the American public has managed to restrain the U.S. government from waging another war, this time against Assad’s Syria. This is a new development, however. I can’t recall or think of any modern U.S. war, pushed by the president, and thwarted by public opinion. This has been a beautiful thing to see.

Yet the reality of U.S. hegemony remains, however the use of its force might be deliberated at home. The U.S. Armed Forces dot the globe, stationed at a thousand bases, with intense occupying forces in Germany, Japan, and Korea. The U.S. military continues to fight a war in Afghanistan, and Obama’s plan seems to involve the reduction of the U.S. troop presence by early 2014 to 32,000 or so—approximately the number of troops there when he took office! The U.S. military establishment rivals the rest of the world’s armed forces combined, and the president claims the unilateral authority to kill any terrorist suspect on the planet.

Obama defends his assertion that America is an “exceptional” nation, against the rebuke we heard from Putin:

I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.

Here it becomes clear that Obama thinks the U.S. government has a singular global role to play in policing international norms and combating injustices within nations, and doing so through the war power. This is not new. Four years ago, Obama boasted that,

more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades — a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

Indeed, in other public speech, Obama has praised such predecessors as Harry Truman, the man who ended war with Japan through nuclear terror, began a Cold War by throwing his weight behind international organizations, intervened in the Mediterranean and sent troops to a war on the Korean peninsula without a Congressional declaration, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and over 36,000 U.S. troops.

There are narrow senses in which one might still consider Obama slightly less belligerent than Bush, but mostly because Bush started a major war, sending a huge U.S. troop presence to Iraq. On other questions, Obama has outdone Bushian belligerence. Some have suggested that the current president’s seemingly bumbling approach to Syria was a long game to shore up congressional authority over presidential war powers, a renunciation of the Bush approach. Yet Bush did go to Congress for both his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whereas Obama was more unilateral in Libya and continued to insist that, although he would likely defer for prudential reasons, he retained the authority to bomb Syria even absent a threat to American security, regardless of what Congress did.

Perhaps most offensively to me, Obama triumphantly declares that his government is “transferring detainees to other countries and trying terrorists in courts of law, while working diligently to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” And yet, four months after he promised to begin releasing prisoners again, the administration continues to play games with the human rights of the detainees, many innocent, stuck there. Andy Worthington, the most studious journalistic authority on Guantánamo, writes:

Four months ago, on May 23, President Obama delivered a major speech on national security issues, in which he promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners from Guantánamo. At the time, of the remaining 166 prisoners, 86 had been cleared for release in January 2010 by an inter-agency task force of officials from the major government departments and the intelligence agencies, which the president had established shortly after taking office in January 2009.

And despite the fact that the horrendous hunger strike and terrible conditions at Guantánamo no longer register in the news cycle, eighteen of these prisoners continue to be force fed, a torturous process in violation of basic medical ethics.

The president has inherited the empire of his predecessors, but he denies it’s an empire. He wants to restore some semblance of respect for human rights and war-making prudence that allegedly disappeared during the last administration, but the reality is that the United States has behaved like a global empire perpetually since the end of World War II, it has been a hypocritical international belligerent and busybody since its war with Spain in 1898, and it has conducted itself as an imperial land-grabber practically since the birth of the republic.

Obama wants to distance himself from Bush’s policies, but he cannot distance himself from his own, nor does he wish to distance himself from the long legacy of imperialism that has characterized American power abroad for over a century. He embraces that legacy explicitly, while adopting rhetoric somewhat less jingoistic than the less politick Republicans who criticize his alleged but truly non-existent pacifist tendencies. Whatever he believes in his mind and holds in his heart cannot be known. But his refusal to admit the truth of the American imperial state while patting himself on the back for symbolic gestures of restraint renders his image that of an emperor in denial.

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