“Hail Hillary!” Clinton, Obama and the Militarization of U.S. Politics
March 06, 2008 By Paul Street
“OUR COMMANDER IN CHIEF”
I am writing on the chilly morning after Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary victories in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island. If my perusal of media coverage last night and early today is any indication, the depressing militarization of United States political culture is alive and well.
Take the rhetoric informing and surrounding Hillary’s comeback. She owes part of her reemergence as the potential Democratic presidential nominee to the fact that Barack Obama’s maddeningly mealy-mouthed and deceptive campaign was caught telling Canada not to take his superficial anti-NAFTA rhetoric seriously while he pandered to proletarians in Ohio. Also contributing to Hilary’s success were escalated revelations surrounding Obama’s relationship with a criminally indicted fundraiser named Tony Rezko – a longtime close associate and patron of the supposedly incorruptible BaRockstar.
But Hillary’s big ace in the hole with her back against the wall was her ability to paint herself out as more qualified than Obama to be – as Hillary’s campaign manager crowed on ABC’s “Nightline” last night – “our commander in chief.” That was the basic message of her recent and very effective television ad showing a young mother looking in on her children while the stately and imperial Hillary prepared to answer the “red phone” at “three in the morning.” It takes a real “commander in chief” to “take that call” and do the right thing – bomb the right officially and hastily designated Evil Others, or whoever – and that Decider is Hillary-tough-as-nails lived-in-the-White-House-and-through-Bill’s-serial-adultery-and voted-for-the-Iraq-War Clinton. “All hail the next Protector and Commander in Chief of the American People, Hillary Clinton!”
“ ‘THE DURATION’ HAS BECOME THE NORM”
To be fair, Hillary and her campaign have hardly invented the terminology in use. As Garry Wills noted in The New York Times six years into the Fascist Lite Cheney-Bush era, “we hear constantly now about our ‘commander in chief.’ The phrase has become a synonym for ‘president.’ It is said that we ‘elect a commander in chief.’ It is asked whether this or that candidate is ‘worthy to be our commander in chief.’ ”
The problem, fellow Americans, is that the president is not your commander in chief unless you happen to be currently enlisted in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marines. He or (perhaps as of late January 2009) she is not the ruler of civilians. S/he is not even the master of the National Guard until they are technically federalized.
“The president,” the Constitution says, “shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.”
Wills’ reflections on the matter deserve lengthier quotation. “When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations,” Wills noted last year, “he gave himself the proper title, ‘commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United states.’ That title is rarely – more like never – heard today. It is just ‘commander in chief’ or even ‘commander in chief of the United States.’ This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its motives from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken ‘for the duration.’ But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.”
“But,” Wills wryly added, “we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and ‘the duration’ World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever – more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war had modulated into the war on terrorism,” giving rise to “an executive branch more fetishistic about secrecy” than any in U.S. history and to the constant “glorification of the president as a war leader” (Garry Wills, “At Ease, Mr. President.” New York Times, 27 January, 2007)
The epitomizing moment of that last terrible development came when the Vietnam war draft dodger and Geneva Convention-suspender George W. Bush donned an Air Force flight suit to prematurely declare his mass-murderous Iraq ““Mission Accomplished” on the holiday of the international proletariat (May 1st) in 2003.
“A NATION AT WAR”
But it is hard to feel a lot of sympathy for Obama as he gets victimized by Hillary’s ability to pick up on the militaristic zeitgeist and portray herself as the better war chief. I can’t count exactly how many times – I’ve heard Obama refer to the United States as “a nation at war.”
That word choice of his is problematic in two key ways. The first difficulty is that it is false. Americans are not dodging IEDs, artillery shells, cluster bombs or even suicide bombers on the way to and from American workplaces, schools, shopping malls, and homes. They are not under attack from other nations’ “foreign fighters” (Bush’s phrase for any non-Iraqi combatant other than a U.S. soldier or mercenary in Mesopotamia), gun-ships, drones, and warplanes – as are many people in American-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. Their country isn’t suffering a devastating foreign occupation like the one America’s current “commander in chief” has criminally enforced – with the deep complicity and enablement of Hillary, Obama (see below) and other top Democrats – on Iraq, leading to a U.S.-imposed Holocaust there. Where’s the war? The United States is engaged in one-sided imperial violence – a monumentally illegal and immoral war of colonial aggression waged against a weak and impoverished nation many thousands of miles away.
The second problem with Obama’s “nation at war” phrase is that it sustains the militarization of U.S. politics by encouraging the president and presidential candidates to conflate the U.S. civilian majority with the national military caste under the rule of their supposed shared “commander in chief.” Under the rules since WWII, a “nation at war” is a nation ready to cower under the alleged protective umbrella of the National Security State and to suspend its “normal” civil liberties for “duration” of the danger, officially permanent in the age of the United States’ terrorist war on terror.
And here it might be worth noting, as Matt Gonzales did last week, that,“Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in July 2005, easily the worst attack on civil liberties in the last half-century. It allows for wholesale eavesdropping on American citizens under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.”
It was an interesting vote for a candidate who frequently refers to his background as a civil rights lawyer.
“THE DIFFERENCE…IS WHO’S IN A POSITION TO EXECUTE”
It gets harder yet to sympathize with Obama’s victimization by Hillary’s militarism when we realize that Bill Clinton (a militaristic warrior in own right) was absolutely correct to denounce Obama’s anti(Iraq)war persona as “fairy tale” campaign imagery.
One day before he gave his famous Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention, the “antiwar” Obama told the New York Times that he wasn’t sure how he would have voted on the U.S. Congress’s fateful 2002 Iraq war resolution had he been serving in the United States Senate at the time. Here is the relevant Times passage: “In a recent interview, [Obama] declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.’ But, I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘What would I have done? I don’t know.’”
The very next day Obama was quoted as follows in the Chicago Tribune: “there’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.”
It’s hard to imagine a more graphic statement of the bipartisan military-imperial consensus than that.
The Tribune added that Obama “now believes U.S. forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation – a position not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration.” As Gonzales asks, “why wouldn’t [Obama] have taken the opportunity to urge withdrawal if he truly opposed the war? Was he trying to signal to conservative voters that he would subjugate his anti-war position if elected to the U.S. Senate and perhaps support a lengthy occupation? Well, as it turns out,” Gonzales added with the wisdom of hindsight, “he’s done just that.”
Obama has never opposed the “war” (naked and one-sided U.S. imperial aggression) on the same terms as the actual antiwar movement. His much-ballyhooed “antiwar speech” in Chicago during the fall of 2002 followed much conventional wisdom in the foreign policy establishment by criticizing “dumb wars” but said nothing about the obviously criminal and imperial, oil-motivated nature of the great international and human rights transgression Cheney and Bush were preparing for Iraq and the world.
In the part of his famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address (generally credited with producing his national celebrity) that came closest to directly criticizing the Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administration had “fudged the numbers” and “shad[ed] the truth” about why “our young men and women” were “sent into harm’s way.” He added that the U.S. must “care for [soldiers’] families while they’re gone, tend to the soldiers upon their return, and never go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.”
Morally cognizant and reasonably informed listeners were left to wonder what he thought about the large number of Iraqis killed and maimed as a result of U.S. invasion by the summer of 2004. What about the massive harm U.S. forces were ordered to inflict on Iraqis, considerably greater than the damage they experienced? These were nonexistent topics in The Speech that turned the “antiwar” Obama into an overnight BaRockstar.
“Securing the peace” was a morally impoverished and nationally arrogant, self-serving way for Obama to describe the real White House objective in Iraq by the summer of 2004: to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the outraged populace of a nation that understandably resented a brazenly imperial invasion it saw (with good reason) as driven (as even Alan Greenspan half admits) by the United States’ desire to deepen its control of Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil.
And “shade the truth” didn’t come close to doing justice to the high-state deception – the savage, sinister, and sophisticated lying – that the Bush administration used and is still using to cover their real agenda, understood with no small accuracy by the people of Iraq.
It’s not much of a “war,” moreover, when the most powerful military state in history attacks and occupies a weak nation it has already devastated over decades of military assault and “economic sanctions.”
Obama has repeatedly voted to spend billions on the invasion since his arrival in the U.S. Senate. He has inveighed against the antiwar “Tom Hayden wing of the Democratic Party” and has told congressional Democrats they would be “playing chicken with the troops” if they dared to actually (imagine) de-fund the Cheney-Bush “war.”
He voted to confirm as Secretary of State (of all things) the mendacious war criminal Condoleezza Rice, who played a critical role in advancing the preposterous Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) claims Bush used to invade Iraq.
He distanced himself from fellow Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin when Durbin faced vicious right-wing attacks for daring to tell some basic truths about U.S. torture practices in Iraq.
Obama used his considerable political and campaign finance muscle to back centrist Democrats against antiwar progressives in numerous Congressional primaries in 2006. He even supported the neoconservative Joe Lieberman – his self-chosen Senate mentor – against the antiwar insurgent Ned Lamont in Connecticut. After their attainment of a majority in the Congress in November of 2006, Obama warned Democrats against being seen as working against the remarkably unpopular and arch-criminal Cheney-Bush administration.
Obama has repeatedly and absurdly claimed that the illegal invasion was launched with the “best of [democratic] intentions.” He has never acknowledged the criminal nature of the “strategic blunder” – his recurrent kind description of the occupation atrocity.
Despite the documented occurrence of numerous U.S. atrocities there, he praises U.S. military personnel for their “unquestioning” “service” in Iraq and for “doing everything we could ever ask of them.”
His belated calls for withdrawal are hedged by numerous statements indicating that an Obama White House would maintain a significant military presence in and around Iraq for an indefinite period of time. And Obama has refused to support taking a reckless (possibly even nuclear) U.S. military assault on Iran off “the table” of acceptable U.S. foreign policy options. Obama couldn’t bother to be present on the Senate floor to vote against the Bush’s administration’s provocative, saber-rattling move to define Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as “an international terrorist organization.”
So while it’s a shame to see the more openly and (I think) dangerously imperialist and militarist Hillary Clinton making a comeback of any kind, it will be hard to get too teary if Obama crucified on the cross of militarized politics.
PROTO-FASCIST REPUBLICAN MADNESS
None of this is meant to deny the madness on the extreme right that passes for mainstream conservatism in the U.S. This morning on NPR, I heard a Texas Republican voter praise John McCain for “staying consistent” and “sticking to his guns on Iraq.”
A lovely sentiment indeed! Adolph Hitler stayed consistent and stuck to his guns during his great European Tour and mass genocide campaign of 1939-1945. Consistency and “courage” are not virtues when applied in service to deeply criminal and openly imperialist policies. By some rigorous estimates, the bipartisan U.S. governing class’s invasion of Iraq has led to the death of more than 1 million Iraqis.
A second Texas Republican voter interviewed on NPR claimed that he would have no choice but to support McCain since Hillary Clinton was, “well, Hillary” and because “Obama is a socialist.”
I’ve heard both Clinton and Obama described as “socialists” by red-blooded Red State Republicans on U.S. radio on numerous occasions over the last two years.
Someone ought to tell it to the leading global financial and other powerful capitalist outfits that are giving record-setting campaign dollars to the in fact business-friendly corporate-neoliberal Democratic presidential frontrunners Barack and Hillary. Why are Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and UBS AG and JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley and other outposts of the financial aristocracy giving millions of dollars to Bolsheviks like Senators Clinton and Obama? Both of them are so far from being “socialists” that they can’t even follow Dennis Kucinich in calling for the obvious social-democratic and cost-effective solution to the U.S. health care crisis: single-payer government health insurance. That elementarily decent policy is unthinkable to the Trotskyist junior senators from Illinois and New York because it would damage parasitic private insurance corporations that are themselves causes of the United States health care fiasco.
I’ve yet to hear a single corporate or “public” media commentator note the chilling absurdity of calling Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton “socialists.” I’ve yet to hear one such commentator call up an actual socialist commentator and ask them if Hillary and Obama share their world view and policy ideas. And I’ve yet to hear a single such commentator note that the identification of mild and centrist liberalism with “socialism” is a hallmark characteristic of the fascist mindset, along with the glorification of national political elites as “war leaders.”
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 is currently completing a book on U.S. political culture and the Barack Obama phenomenon.