Revolution#118, February 3, 2008

Andrew Sullivan on Obama: The “Best Face” For Imperialism

In an article in the December issue of The Atlantic, commentator Andrew Sullivan argues that Barack Obama should be the next president of the United States. (“Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” December 2007). Sullivan writes that a (ruling class) “consensus” agenda for endless war and increased repression will be in effect regardless of who is president. He challenges the reader to pick who could best implement all this in the face of global isolation and profound domestic alienation. And, in the process, he sheds light on the real role of elections in this society.

Those who are willing to listen in on a ruling class insider’s case for Obama, read on.

Civics 101: Your Vote for President “Has Little to Do With” Basic Policy Decisions

First, a note on Andrew Sullivan’s credentials: Sullivan writes columns for the New York Times, Time magazine, and is a regular on the political talk shows. He is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. Sullivan’s defining political legacy was his tenure as editor of The New Republic, where he counted among his big achievements the promotion of the book The Bell Curve, a completely ridiculous but highly influential pseudoscientific book that claimed that Black people are genetically inferior to whites. The New Republic under his editorship played a key role in—in his words—“helping to torpedo the Clinton administration’s plans for universal health coverage.” A conservative who has differences with Christian fundamentalism (Sullivan is openly gay), he invokes Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as models.

And yes, he is supporting Barack Obama for president.

Very early in Sullivan’s article, he invokes and reveals a little ruling class secret: Your vote “has little to do with” basic policy decisions.

Listen to Sullivan: “The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama,” he writes, “has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics.”

Sullivan lists, rather extensively, how such “conventions of our politics” are set for the next president, regardless of who he is. The war in Iraq? It “has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade.” “Every potential president,” writes Sullivan, “is committed to an open-ended deployment in Afghanistan and an unbending alliance with Israel.” And Sullivan doesn’t even pose as “issues” many of the most egregious outrages that people are angry about—from the abandonment of the poor and Black people of New Orleans, to the generated xenophobia and reign of terror against immigrants. The word “torture” never appears in his article.

While Sullivan’s actual projection of the ruling class “evolving consensus” is bad enough, it also includes what is likely wishful thinking on his part. For example, he postulates that this “consensus” includes permitting abortion in the first trimester—something that the leading Republican candidates have vowed to end. But the more fundamental revelation pointed to here is not that Obama’s policies are the same as those of every other “credible” candidate (which they are), but that it doesn’t really matter what his policies are.

Underlying Sullivan’s assertion that Obama’s candidacy (or anyone else’s) has “little to do with his policy proposals” is a deeper truth which is not acknowledged by Sullivan, although it drives the whole framework that he does acknowledge. The foundational thing here is that whoever is elected president of the United States presides over a system of capitalism-imperialism that has its own logic, and any president who tried to go against that would be “overruled” in one form or another quickly by the system. To take just one example: If someone got elected president and tried to withdraw U.S. military forces from all of the 130 countries with U.S. bases, this plan would be “overruled” in one form or another by the apparatus of the capitalist state (through “advice” from ruling class advisers, impeachment, “scandal,” or other forms). Why? Because the global domination of U.S. capital is projected and enforced by these military bases. That imperialist domination of the world, in turn, is key to the relative high standard of living and social stability within the U.S. If a president tried to shut down all the U.S. military bases around the world, that would be incompatible with, and cause severe disruption in the U.S. imperialist economy and in society.

Having clarified that this election “has little to do with [Obama’s] policy proposals,” and “even less to do with his ideological pedigree,” Sullivan gets to the argument for Obama, and in the course of doing so, entreats the reader into complicity with terrible crimes.

“The Most Effective Re-Branding of the United States Since Reagan”

Obama, argues Sullivan, is “the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power.” (By “hard power,” Sullivan means military force; by “soft power,” he means non-military dimensions of “winning hearts and minds”—in conjunction with the use of, or threat of, military power.)

Choosing whether Obama, Clinton, Edwards, McCain or anyone else would actually be the most effective “soft power” weapon in the “war on terror,” is choosing who will put the best face on the actual source of the worst global terror—U.S. imperialism. Let’s check back into reality for a moment and reflect on the horrors the “war on terror” has brought: Up to a million or more dead Iraqis. Five million Iraqis dislocated from their homes or country. Afghanistan, in ruins, controlled by either the Taliban or drug-growing Islamic fundamentalist warlords aligned with the U.S. Torture chambers from Bagram in Afghanistan to secret cells in Europe. Rendition to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia for more U.S.-sponsored torture. Detention without trial. Guantánamo. And a world trapped in a horrific polarization between U.S. imperialist aggression, plunder, and terror, and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism that is both the target of and, in many ways, a product of the “war on terror.”

Obama’s invocation of Ronald Reagan is worth another look in the context of Sullivan’s article. Sullivan specifically argues that Obama could be the most effective president at projecting U.S. power around the world since Reagan.

Reagan’s infamous joke: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever, we begin bombing in five minutes,” concentrated his role in history. While he rattled horrific nuclear weapons, he armed thugs to carry out terror from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, from El Salvador and Guatemala to Angola and Mozambique. Reagan fostered a war between Iraq and Iran that took the lives of a million people and backed the apartheid government of South Africa and the racist state of Israel—when both were brutally suppressing internal rebellions of the oppressed peoples within their borders.

Since controversy broke out over his pro-Reagan statements to a Nevada newspaper, Obama has sought to “clarify” what he meant. Let’s re-examine his statements.

In the interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, Obama said: “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the ’60s and ’70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is, ‘We want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.’”

Later Obama “clarified” his remarks to say that he “spent a lifetime fighting against Ronald Reagan’s policies,” while not recanting his previous comments. But, as we have seen, “policies” are not really what elections are all about. What Obama calls the “excesses” of the ’60s were really great struggles that did not go far enough. And the point remains that both Sullivan, and Obama himself, are invoking the Reagan legacy in terms promoting feel-good “clarity” and “optimism” about the crimes of U.S. imperialism.

Nobody who opposes the terrible course this country is on should want to be part of a campaign to do that.

Two Scenarios

In promoting Obama for president, Sullivan poses a couple of very heavy scenarios. Sullivan writes: “Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man Barack Hussein Obama is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm... If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.”

This is an argument for who would be the best face on endless imperialist war, mass murder, and torture. Why the hell would you want to be part of choosing who could best put that over on people?

And Sullivan argues that Obama is not only a better face for the “war on terror” around the world, but also a uniquely credible face for domestic repression. What would happen, Sullivan asks, if there were “another 9/11–style attack.” He poses that “It is hard to imagine a reprise of the sudden unity and solidarity in the days after 9/11, or an outpouring of support from allies and neighbors. It is far easier to imagine an even more bitter fight over who was responsible (apart from the perpetrators) and a profound suspicion of a government forced to impose more restrictions on travel, communications, and civil liberties. The current president would be unable to command the trust, let alone the support, of half the country in such a time. He could even be blamed for provoking any attack that came.”

The context here is an argument over who would be best, in the event of “another 9/11-style attack” (or, one could add, a claim by the government that one was “planned”), to implement what Sullivan euphemistically calls “more restrictions on travel, communications, civil liberties.”

Right now, uncounted people are on secret “watch lists,” prohibited from traveling on airplanes. The most massively intrusive surveillance in human history monitors your phone calls and your Internet browsing, and makes it illegal for a librarian to tell you the government is looking at what books you check out. The president can lock up anyone, for any reason, on his say-so, without recourse to anything resembling a credible trial. And Sullivan is arguing that Obama would be best for implementing even more fascistic repression.

Once more: Why the hell would you want to be part of choosing who could best put that over on people?

The Intensifying Domestic “Civil War”

Sullivan frames his argument for Obama in the context of what he calls an “intensifying, a nonviolent civil war.” A conflict “about culture and about religion and about race.”

There is profound conflict in the U.S. over culture, religion, and race. It is characterized not by nonviolence, but by one-sided violence. White supremacy that in an earlier era was enforced through lynch mobs and nooses (and note the comeback of the noose) is today enforced in the inner cities by the policeman’s gun. The religious culture war is waged by violent attacks on not only abortion clinics, but also those who work for them. And society is so permeated with violence against women in the form of rape and domestic violence against women that it is an invisible part of the “culture.”

There is also a polarization at the top of society, among the ruling class. On one side, the core around Bush (and, generally speaking, ruling class forces whose agenda is expressed by or represented by the Republican Party) is on a mission—in the literal, religious sense in many ways—to radically remake the post-“Cold War” world and to tear up the “social contract” that has more or less held U.S. society together for generations. On the other side are forces in the ruling class who are operating in the same framework, but fear doing all this too fast, too overtly, and in a way that will tear society apart (generally characterized by the leaders of the Democratic Party).

A substantial thread in Sullivan’s article includes his advice on how to manage the conflict at the top of the ruling class, including his dissatisfaction with Bush’s style and approach (among Sullivan’s complaints: Bush is “unable to do nuance”). But here, we’ll focus on Sullivan’s argument that Obama is the best face not only for U.S. imperialist war, but also for resolving the domestic “civil war.”

Obama, Sullivan writes, can take “America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.” And Obama can end “the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying.”

Sullivan’s own perspective is that the best course for those with fears and reservations about the direction things are heading is to adopt much of the framework established by Bush, and push for moderation within that. Sullivan sees the Baby Boomers (his repeated term for the legacy of the ’60s) as an obstacle to forging a reasonable course within the “evolving consensus.” In his article, he claims that those who oppose the U.S. “war on terror,” and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, “judged the 9/11 attacks to be a legitimate response to decades of U.S. foreign policy.”

This distortion is important to excavate. The most powerful opposition voices to the “war on terror” have never argued that 9/11 was a “legitimate response” to U.S. foreign policy. They have argued that the “war on terror” is immoral, illegal, and illegitimate; and that the people themselves must forge a new way forward in opposition to both McWorld and Jihad. For example, the Call from World Can’t Wait, signed by thousands of people including many prominent actors, authors, political activists, and others, begins: “YOUR GOVERNMENT, on the basis of outrageous lies, is waging a murderous and utterly illegitimate war in Iraq, with other countries in their sights. YOUR GOVERNMENT is openly torturing people, and justifying it.” (The Call is available at Millions in this country have asked, and more should ask, “Why do they hate us so much?”

Distorting such questioning and opposition in the way Sullivan does—claiming that such opposition judges the 9/11 attacks “legitimate”—fits in with the framework established by the Bush mantra of “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

Sullivan, and let’s face it, he is accurately projecting what Obama is about, argues that Obama can isolate “the Baby Boomers” and get America past all that ’60s stuff. And here again, the Reagan legacy is invoked, not—actually—by Sullivan, but by Obama himself who recently pointed to Reagan’s ability to “transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways…”

As we wrote last week, in the wake of the rebellious culture of the ’60s, “Reagan came out there with this shit-eating grin and salesman’s chuckle, and all the while he mobilized a fascist social base ready to bully anybody, and he narcotized those in the middle, and he effectively silenced and marginalized those who stood for anything decent.” (See “ ‘American Greatness’—And Why Obama and Reagan Really DO Belong Together,” by Toby O’Ryan at In this context, Obama’s constant invocation that “There is no liberal America, there is no conservative America, there is only the United States of America…” can be understood as a call for patriotic national unity—unity with the most terrible crimes being committed by the world’s sole superpower.

And again, it must be posed: Who the hell would want to “resolve” the culture wars in society this way?

Sullivan does not focus much in this essay on the great societal divide over the oppression of Black people (or other oppressed nationalities). (The relationship between Obama’s campaign and white supremacy is beyond the scope of this article, but here it can be noted that in this essay Sullivan describes “Obama’s campaign for white America: courteous and smiling and with no sudden moves.”) Sullivan does address the question of the rise of theocratic Christian religious fundamentalism. In the method typical of his article, Sullivan defines the societal divide over religion in terms that marginalize secularism, and even separation of church and state, referring to a conflict between “God-fearing Americans and the peacenik atheist hippies.”

Sullivan argues for a bigger role for religion in society and government than has been the norm up to Bush. The choice, Sullivan poses, is between “crude exploitation of sectarian loyalty and religious zeal by Bush and Rove,” and a bigger role for religion that stops short of that. Sullivan writes, “You cannot lead the United States without having a foot in both the religious and secular camps.” Whatever Sullivan’s intentions, the view of ceding a larger role to religion and denigrating secular culture (those “atheist hippies”) cedes the moral high ground to Christian fascists. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton (and before her Bill Clinton) have also promoted the illusion that by conceding ground to the Christian fundamentalists you can moderate or temper them. It is in this context that Obama’s particular brand of professed Christian beliefs fits the bill, according to Sullivan, although he acknowledges that Hillary Clinton as well is taking pains to position herself as accommodating to the rise of Christian fundamentalism.

What We REALLY Need

Underlying Sullivan’s argument that Obama is the best candidate to manage all these conflicts in the direction the ruling class wants to take things is an explicit acknowledgement that there is a sharp polarization in U.S. society that could get out of control—“the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying.”

This intensifying situation will not just “fall into” anything good for the people. The global anger at the U.S. is far from enough to bring about anything positive. That is the case within the U.S., and it is the case worldwide. Within the U.S., anger at the direction of things can take, and for many is taking, the form of rallying around patriotic Christian fascism and an attraction to the “good old days” of unquestioned white supremacy and “good vs. evil” simplistic support for U.S. wars. Around the world, far too many angry oppressed people look to the reactionary dead end of Islamic fundamentalism as a “response” to imperialism.

But the emergence of a real and visible opposition to the whole direction this country is headed, standing with and starting from the interests of humanity,can forge a new polarization within the U.S. and create a much better climate for the emergence of progressive and revolutionary movements worldwide, and can even create openings for, and forces for, revolutionary change in the U.S.

Working for that is something worth doing. And it is a lot more realistic than putting your faith in a candidacy, and a process that is part of putting “the best face” on a world of horrors!


“If you fall into the orientation of trying to make the Democrats be what they are not, and never will be, you will end up becoming more like what the Democrats actually are.”

—Bob Avakian

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