Revolution #167, June 7, 2009
Obama in Cairo:
A Speech of Lies To Enforce a SYSTEM of Oppression
As you read this, the U.S. is either waging, bankrolling, or threatening war all across the Middle East and South Asia. Hundreds of millions of people in the Arab countries and South Asia bitterly oppose these wars. They connect these American-led wars to a whole matrix of political, economic and cultural domination by the imperialists. And they are right to do so.
On June 5 Barack Obama, the chief representative of the imperialist system in the U.S. and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces waging those wars, gave a speech in Egypt, at Cairo University. Obama’s mission was NOT, as we shall see, to change these basic relations. He did not even announce the end of any of these wars.
Instead, Obama aimed to recast people’s understanding of the terms of all this, to use his background and ability to "package" it to provide a "different narrative." It was an attempt—a major attempt—to change how people understand history, how they view the world today and how they see the possibilities and avenues for change.
It is important to understand the actual policies set forth in this speech, and we will address some of those. But it is at least equally important to dig deeply into the historical and analytical framework in which Obama cast those policies, and that will be our principal focus.
"The Muslim World"
Obama introduced his speech as an attempt to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect..." He continually quoted the Q’uran, as well as the Bible, and referred to various myths—for instance, a purported meeting between Moses, Jesus and Mohammed—as if they were true. Unlike the Bush regime, many of whose key operatives used imagery openly evocative of the Christian Crusades against the Arab world, Obama demonstrated his command of Islamic imagery and made a show of respect for Islamic religion.
Many of the sharpest conflicts today do find expression in the form of conflicts between forces espousing Islamic fundamentalism, which have a base in both the impoverished and dislocated masses of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as elsewhere, and the United States in particular. By "showing respect for Islam," Obama hopes to cut a section of the potential base of those movements out from under them.
But the notion of a "Muslim world" serves actually to conceal a fundamental and important truth: there are deeper, material factors and contradictions than religion driving the development of societies. What’s going on in the Middle East is not at base a religious conflict or a "clash of civilizations." It is a matter of billions of people—entire nations, peoples and regions of the world—subordinated to and forced to live under the yoke of an imperialist system, with the fundamental character of that system obscured by all manner of fanciful notions and myths. The U.S. does not subjugate these countries because of their religion—it dominates them in order to ensure the workings of U.S. capitalism and, in close relation to that, the U.S. geopolitical domination of the world. It ensnares these countries in a whole network of economic relations in which their subordinate economic position is constantly reproduced. Conversely, liberation cannot be achieved through an "Islamic revolution"; such a revolution, among other things, will not and cannot rupture out of this oppressed and subordinate position to the imperialist order, nor will it alter the fundamental relations of exploitation within these societies.
The societies in the Middle East and South Asia, like societies everywhere on the planet, are divided into classes. Within these particular societies, there are ruling cliques of "comprador capitalists" which fundamentally represent the interests of the U.S., or other imperialist powers, and carry out or defend brutal super-exploitation of the masses in the service of those interests. This super-exploitation and plunder has caused extreme misery and tremendous social dislocation. In many cases, these cliques use Islam as a way to legitimize their rule. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, to take one notable but hardly unique example, serve as one of the main conduits of American economic and political domination of the region. Their ideology that frames the legal system and form of rule, and that legitimates that rule, is an extreme brand of repressive Islam. But that has never been a problem for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has throughout history built up and reinforced these sorts of forces against revolutionary communists and (more or less) secular nationalists.
In other cases, these ruling forces take on a more "modern" guise (even as they still utilize Islam). At the same time, there are other exploiting classes—landlords who exploit peasants, capitalists who exploit proletarians—who, for one reason or another, have not been "dealt into" the system of imperialist plunder to their satisfaction. These class forces these days also often take on the ideology of Islam, and portray the oppression of the masses, and of the plunder and domination of these nations as a whole, as a case of religious oppression; they accuse the puppets who run the country of betraying Islam and capitulating to the infidels. There are also forces in these countries which take up more modern forms of thought associated with the "Enlightenment"—forces which want a certain break with traditional social relations and would like to see "more room" for science, non-religious literature, etc. and greater freedom for women. Absent a strong revolutionary communist pole, these forces on the one hand generally do not fundamentally break with or challenge Islam and on the other cast their opposition within the constraints of bourgeois democracy—that is, democracy "in the image of" (and designed to reinforce the domination of) the capitalist class.
Meanwhile, at the base of society there are hundreds of millions of peasants and proletarians in these nations, subjected to bitter and grinding exploitation, and living lives foreshortened by hunger, war, disease, ignorance and oppression and who also provide the great wealth sucked from these countries by imperialism and the local exploiters. It is a major problem in the world today that, despite the valiant and even heroic efforts of communists in some of these countries, the masses in this part of the world are almost entirely under the political and ideological sway of one of these two poles, and many of the most exploited—along with some of disaffected middle strata who have no place in society, no way to contribute or flourish—have gravitated toward Islamic fundamentalism. This is poisonous. Islamic fundamentalism masks the basic character of the problem, which is a) the domination of these societies by imperialism, b) the continued pervasiveness of feudal and semi-feudal oppression within these societies, and c) the mutual entwinement and reinforcement of these two oppressive forces. And it leads away from the solution—a truly emancipating revolution to liberate these societies from imperialism and to move toward socialism, and ultimately communism. Instead, Islamic fundamentalism, where it has come to power, has produced societies no less repressive and exploitative than what they replace.
From the point of the view of the real interests of the masses, the casting of this fundamental antagonism in religious terms leads to disastrous results. It reflects an aspect of the surface reality, but it actually obscures, distorts and leads away from understanding the essential underlying forces and dynamics which have led to this horrendous situation. Revolutionaries have no choice but to devote major efforts to rupturing the masses from this outlook; this can’t be finessed, and nobody should want to finesse it. And the importance of doing it is, perversely enough, underlined by the fact that Obama’s entire speech—literally from beginning to end—is framed in, draws on, and reinforces these very terms and this very framework of understanding.
Crude Stereotype or Dead-On Characterization?
After paying homage to "Islamic civilization" for a while, Obama moves to a central point of his speech: "America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words—within our borders, and around the world."
This may not be a very original lie, but it is still an astoundingly bald-faced one and one all too little remarked upon by those commenting on this speech.
To begin with, Obama did not mention exactly which blood that America has shed in its many many wars has NOT been in the service of a "self-interested" empire.
Was it the blood shed by the Native peoples of this country, who were pitilessly killed by America in wars that decimated, uprooted and often obliterated all traces of one people after another? These genocidal wars often paved the way to "hero" status and even the White House for those who prosecuted them—even today a laudatory biography of one of the most brutal and blood-thirsty genocidal general/presidents, Andrew Jackson, is on the best-seller charts.
Was it the blood shed by Mexicans, when the U.S. waged war against Mexico and stole much of its land—a war carried out for the principal purpose of expanding slavery?
Was it the blood shed in the war conducted to colonize the people of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century—a war in which America slaughtered somewhere between 200,000 and 1.4 million (!) Filipino people, out of a population at the time of 7 million?
Was it the blood that soaked the fields of Vietnam, when the U.S., murdered between two and three million people? Or the blood flowing in the deserts and cities of Iraq, where American military power over the past two decades has caused the death of over a million people and the maiming, torture, immiseration and suffering of millions more? How about the scores of U.S. invasions and military actions in Central and South America, stretching over decades, with its death toll in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands—all designed to prop up a pitiless and brutal U.S. domination of those nations?
Or perhaps it is Afghanistan, where the U.S. first bankrolled and armed Islamic fundamentalists who fought the rival of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and where today its 40,000 troops specialize in the mass murder of civilians from the sky?1
Even the much-vaunted "good war," World War 2—which, note well, Obama immediately went on from Cairo to celebrate and call attention to through his cynical, photo-op visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp and his participation in the "D-Day ceremonies"—was nothing but a strategic move by the United States to expand its domination of the entire globe, defeating the challenge from its German rival (after first letting that rival bleed the then-socialist Soviet Union) and absorbing what had been the empires of its allies France and England into a new, U.S.-dominated neo-colonial order. Where, in all the rivers of blood that has been shed by U.S. arms over the past two centuries and more, is the blood that was NOT in the service of empire?
Is calling America a "self-interested empire" a "crude stereotype"? No. As the above list makes clear (and that list is far from exhaustive), it is merely a basic and undeniable truth essential to understanding the world we live in, what needs to be transformed in that world, and how to do it. America IS an empire—or, more scientifically, an imperialist system that requires the super-exploitation and domination of whole parts of the world for its existence. Unfortunately, even many who see or know about these crimes—or at least some of them—do not see, or refuse to see, the mechanism at the heart of the machine, the driving dynamic that reproduces these crimes generation after generation. And this weakness in people’s understanding is something that Obama—with his fresh packaging and his new face—attempts to play on.
Obama put out his profound lie about America at a pivotal part of his speech—right before he goes into the key "specific issues that...we must finally confront together." But depending on how you understand what America in its essence is all about—what it has been about in all its wars and throughout its history, and what drives it forward—you will look these "specific issues" very differently, and you will "confront" them in a very different way.
Defending—and Extending—American Wars
Obama then moves on to defend U.S. aggression in all its forms. He begins by invoking the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to justify U.S. aggression in the region.
To be clear, the 9/11 attacks were utterly wrong and should in no way be defended or justified, and al Qaeda itself is a reactionary force in the world whose influence must be combated. But invoking these attacks can neither wipe away the far more heinous crimes carried out by the U.S. leading up to them, nor does it justify the murder now of far, far greater numbers of people by the U.S. military. Yet Obama can invoke nothing but the specter of 9/11 to justify the military aggression taking place across the region.
Obama goes on to say that while the war against Iraq was a "war of choice"—in fact, it was an illegal and criminal war, a crime against humanity according to international law—the Iraqi people are "ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein." In short, far from apologizing for the war, he justifies it. Let us pause for a minute to reflect on the fact that over one million people have died as a result of the two U.S. wars against Iraq and the imposition of "sanctions" that deprived Iraqis of clean drinking water, needed medical supplies and facilities, etc. over the course of more than ten years. Let us pause for a minute to reflect on the war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s, in which the U.S. encouraged both sides, in an effort to get each to bleed the other—a war which resulted in an estimated one million deaths. Let us pause to think about the over four million Iraqis displaced by the current war; the countless women and girls driven into prostitution; the terrible, almost unfathomable toll in ruined and shattered lives. Now a new form of rule, no less subservient to the U.S. and no less exploitative and oppressive than Hussein’s, is being hammered into place. To blandly intone that the Iraqis are "better off" is obscene.
Obama also gives what the Wall Street Journal called a "robust defense of the war in Afghanistan." The Journal particularly welcomed Obama’s promise that "America’s commitment will not weaken." As we have covered in this paper, this war is bound up both with "maintaining respect" for U.S. military power in the world—power which is essential to backing up its plunder and exploitation—and, in the case of Afghanistan, is also connected to very critical geopolitical and economic interests (see "The U.S. in Afghanistan: A War for Empire – Not a 'Good War' Gone Bad, Part 1," "The U.S. in Afghanistan: A War for Empire—Not a “Good War” Gone Bad, Part 2: Seizing on September 11 to Launch an Imperial War" and "Pipeline of Greed: U.S. Imperialism and the 'Great Game' for Caspian Oil," as well as other articles analyzing U.S. imperialist interests in Afghanistan at revcom.us). And, as we have also documented, it is a war in which the U.S. way of fighting of necessity involves terrible suffering and death among the people.
Justifying Israeli Domination
Obama next proceeds to what he calls "the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world." Obama makes sure that everyone first understands that "America’s strong bonds with Israel" are "unbreakable." He then invokes the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews in World War 2 in order to lend legitimacy to Israel.
Obama casts this as "a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive." He calls on people to not "see this conflict only from one side or the other." Instead, "both sides" must "live up to [their] responsibilities under the Road Map"—that is, the plan developed by George W. Bush for "peace" between Israel and the Palestinian people (essentially a plan for surrender by the Palestinians).
No. The oppression of the Jews by European rulers—oppression which lasted centuries and which reached a culmination in the Nazi holocaust—terrible though it was, cannot through some alchemical magic make legitimate the attempt by some European Jews to then dispossess and oppress a whole other people.
And no, this is not a "stalemate" between two equally aggrieved peoples. On one side is Israel, a settler state originated by the Zionist movement which arose in Europe among European Jews, and which was supported, bankrolled and finally backed up with force by a variety of imperialist powers, most notably the United States. That movement carried out a vicious colonial war, replete with massacres and the razing of hundreds of villages. The state which grew out of that war not only killed thousands and dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people through the war itself, but has ever since carried out ruthless oppression against them. Most recently, this was evident in the ruthless and criminal Israeli attack on Gaza—one which featured, again, the murder of whole families and, in a new and truly grotesque twist, the forcing of children to stay in houses with their murdered mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, starving and traumatized, lest they be murdered as "possible terrorists." (See, for example, "Shelled family recounts Gaza horror," Al Jazeera, (1/12/09) available at YouTube. This is not a matter of how one "chooses" to "see the conflict"—it is a matter of what is true, and what is false.
Over and over again, Obama demonstrates his mastery of the art of euphemism. This is clear for instance in what bourgeois commentators have agreed was Obama’s "great concession" in the speech: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
No again. These settlements—ALL of them, not just the future settlements which Obama says should stop—are war crimes, expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. And they are war crimes on top of war crimes in the real sense that the whole founding of Israel was totally unjust and criminal, as outlined above.
Obama also calls on all parties to adhere to the "Road Map"—the U.S. plan to end the "conflict" by setting up a fragmented network of territories occupied and administered by Palestinians, but militarily, politically and economically dominated by Israel—he insists that "Palestinians must abandon violence." But this call to end violence is applied only to Palestinians and not to the Israelis, even though Israel carries out violence on an almost infinitely greater scale.
To say this to the Palestinians is outrageous. It is as if someone came into your house, and killed much of your family, and chained up you and the few surviving fellow family members in the basement for years as they moved their family in, and retaliated for the mildest peep of protest with even more violence, murder and abuse; and then when you try to break out of the basement, you are told by the robber’s older brother that you are being too violent in your protest and resistance.
Pimping off of—and Viciously Distorting—the History of Black People in the U.S.
This part of Obama’s speech contains one of the most astounding lies of the whole speech (though there are many contenders for that title). Insisting that the Palestinians must renounce violence, he says the following: "For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding."
To this, there can be but one reply: Are you fucking kidding?!?
First of all, Black people today do not have "full and equal rights." As we document and analyze in our statement The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System, and the Revolution We Need, the oppression of Black people is not a thing of the past but a pillar of the system of today, with inequality and oppression pervasive in the spheres of employment, education, housing, imprisonment, and health, as well as in the sphere of culture and ideology more generally. Nowhere is this inequality and oppression more glaringly manifest than in the pervasive police brutality and outright police murder directed against Black youth—with the most recent well-known outrage being the murder of Oscar Grant, Jr. on January 1 this year—shot point-blank in the back as he lay restrained on the ground. Obama has not seen fit to even mention this murder; in fact rarely if ever does he mention murders of this kind other than to justify them, as he did in the case of Sean Bell, when Obama very vocally instructed people to "respect" the not guilty verdict rendered on the cops who killed the unarmed Bell.
It is also true that outright chattel slavery no longer legally exists in the U.S. and that many legal rights have been won over the past 50 years. But these were hardly won by renouncing resistance, resistance which in many cases included revolutionary violence in the face of counter-revolutionary violence.
Let’s start with slavery. First, there are the over 200 slave rebellions in American history. Nat Turner, for one, was very determined but you couldn’t really call him peaceful. Or take Frederick Douglass. Douglass, like much of the movement to abolish slavery, adhered at first to non-violence. But, as the force of white supremacy continued to ever more stubbornly assert itself, Douglass, along with much of the rest of the abolitionist movement, came to a different view. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Douglass wrote that "Slave-holders..., tyrants and despots have no right to live. The only way to make the fugitive slave law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers." The following decade was marked by increasingly violent struggle, including a virtual civil war in what would become the state of Kansas and then John Brown’s raid on a federal arsenal Harper’s Ferry, Va.—an attempt by Brown to start a widespread slave insurrection. Brown was tried for treason and hung, though much of the abolitionist movement, including many great writers and intellectuals of the day, upheld him.
Which leads us to the Civil War. Mr. Obama, was the Civil War not violent? But was it not instrumental in ending slavery? Playing a key role in this were Black soldiers in the Union Army, who died in twice the proportion of their white fellow soldiers. Lincoln was very reluctant to allow Black enlistment and even after doing so at first prevented them from serving in combat battalions. But Lincoln’s desire to win the war eventually forced him to allow Black soldiers to fight. Even still, Lincoln stubbornly refused for a year and a half to grant Black soldiers equal pay, giving them only half the salary of the lowest ranks of white soldiers. As one notable defender of Lincoln recently wrote, "Only after blacks threatened mutiny (and after several were hanged for protesting the unequal pay) did blacks in uniform get their due." ["Lincoln’s Black History," Garry Wills, New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009]
Nor does this bizarre version of history stand up to recent times. There were literally hundreds of rebellions in the major cities of America during the 1960s, in which thousands and thousands of people went up against police forces, National Guard and even the regular troops of the U.S. Army. By 1966, the non-violent strategy and orientation of Martin Luther King—which contrary to mythology were never universally taken up in the civil rights movement even in its earliest days—had been rendered irrelevant. The concessions that did come in employment, education, and other arenas came fundamentally as a result of the heroic resistance and struggle put up in urban streets, and the threat of the embryonic revolutionary movement of the times growing into one that could actually contend for power.
For a number of reasons—and we urge readers to go to The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System, and the Revolution We Need for a fuller explanation—this struggle did not "go all the way." Today, while there has been improvement in the situation for a small section of Black people, for many the situation is much worse. Contrary to Professor Obama, the lesson that must be drawn from this epochal struggle, by Palestinians and everyone else, is NOT that the system works, or that any movement must adhere to non-violence but that resistance is essential to not being ground down to what Marx called a "level mass of broken wretches," and this resistance must be waged as part of a movement for revolution if the masses are to actually achieve REAL emancipation.
Iran and Nukes
Obama next moves to address the question of "rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons." In his typically euphemistic fashion, Obama owns up that "the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government." Well, actually the U.S. didn’t just play a role—it godfathered and engineered the 1953 coup against the elected prime minister Mossadegh. It replaced him with the brutal Shah of Iran, who was supported and armed by the U.S. for the next 25 years until being finally overthrown in 1978. Obama somehow forgets to mention the tens of thousands who died as a result of this "role-playing" he alludes to. Instead, he deploys his favorite tactic of "even-handedness" to equate 25 years of vicious oppression and murder to the seizure of the U.S. embassy by students and the taking of several dozen U.S. hostages in the process.
He expresses "understanding" for "those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not." This vague circumlocution, or double-talk, is meant to avoid mentioning that Israel has somewhere between 100 and 300 nuclear weapons and that the U.S. itself, of course, has several thousand, but that it is Iran—which has NO nuclear weapons—which is being threatened with war for refusing to put its nuclear power program under the control of the United Nations and, through that, the U.S. Obama does not mention that Iran is even today being attacked and subverted by U.S. "Special Forces" within its borders—a program begun by Bush and continued by Obama.
We will not here attempt to analyze the further twists and turns in U.S. tactics toward Iran, other than to note that Obama’s vocal "hand of unity" has thus far been accompanied by the same iron fist in practice associated with Bush (for background, see "An Assessment of the Momentum Towards War Between the United States and Iran: Causes and Potential Ramifications; Preliminary Findings by a Working Group," at revcom.us).
The "Two Outmodeds" and the Emancipation of Women
Obama goes on to cover democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights and economic development and opportunity, before finally ending with a call to trust America and a final crescendo of religious flourishes and outright god-mongering. While this article will not attempt to address each of these topics in turn, they all could—and eventually should—be given the same sort of analysis as we have to the beginning and more central points of his speech.
We do, however, want to refer our readers to A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, by the RCP,USA, which appeared in issue 158 of Revolution, and in particular the section "U.S. Imperialism and Islamic Fundamentalism: A ‘Lose/Lose’ Choice and Deadly Trap." Here we will quote at length from that Declaration, which stands as a telling and important refutation not only of Obama’s distortions on the topic of "women’s rights" but, in many ways, his speech as a whole.
"While they may appear very different, the burkha enforced by fanatical Islamic fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the ‘thong,’ widely advertised and promoted as ‘sexy underwear’ for women, in ‘modern’ capitalist society, on the other hand, are both hideous symbols and embodiments of the degradation of women. The fundamental thing they have in common is that they are both manifestations of a world marked by horrendous forms of oppression, both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’—a world dominated overall by capitalist imperialism—a world that needs to be turned upside down and radically transformed.
"As Bob Avakian has pointed out in speaking to a phenomenon that is increasingly shaping the lives of many millions around the world:
What we see in contention here with Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other hand, are historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system. These two reactionary poles reinforce each other, even while opposing each other. If you side with either of these ‘outmodeds,’ you end up strengthening both.
"Between these two ‘outmodeds’ it is the imperialist ruling classes, and that of the U.S. in particular, which have, by far, done the most harm to humanity and pose the greatest threats. In fact, imperialist domination itself in the Middle East, Indonesia, and elsewhere—along with the massive disruption and dislocation that this domination causes, and the corruption, venality and vicious repression characteristic of the local governments that are dependent on and serve imperialism—gives great fuel to the fire of Islamic fundamentalism as a response to all this, although a reactionary one. Anyone who uses their feminist credentials to legitimate any part of the U.S.’s savage imperialist aggression is morally bankrupt. If they are able to do this while managing to maintain the self-delusion that those who are really calling the shots give a damn what they think, they may well have crossed over to the realm of the criminally insane.
"What is urgently needed is to bring forward another way—a way that opposes BOTH of these reactionary and outmoded forces. And the more this kind of movement and powerful resistance is brought forward in the U.S., the more it will give air to breathe and initiative to genuine revolutionaries in parts of the world that are quite righteously hotbeds of hatred against U.S. imperialism.
"And what is needed, above all, is a revolution, to sweep away capitalism-imperialism, and all reactionary and outmoded systems and relations...all the ways in which half of humanity is held down, demeaned, plundered and despoiled by the other half……and all the ways in which the masses of humanity are enslaved and oppressed by a rotten and murderous system, ruled over by a relative handful of ruthless exploiters."
The Odd Couple
The commentary on Obama’s speech is itself revealing and worth reviewing. Generally, the bourgeoisie, both liberal and conservative, welcomed the speech, while expressing a few reservations. This reflects the essential shared view of the imperialist ruling class that they must continue their violent military domination of the regions of the Middle East and South Asia, with a U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, a continued military "presence" in Iraq, stepped up intervention in Pakistan, etc.; that Israel must be relied upon as a bulwark of U.S. domination in the region; and that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. This view, in turn, rests on the material interests of this class in maintaining itself as the dominant power on the planet. And it reflects, finally, the consensus view that Obama’s efforts to "re-brand" this enterprise by taking off the rough edges of Bush and utilizing his heritage as an African-American with Muslim relatives should be supported. In this light, the openly reactionary Wall Street Journal titled its overall laudatory editorial "Barack W. Bush" and one internet wag commented that the only part of the speech that Bush could not have given was the one about having a Muslim father. While there is some hyperbole in this, there is an essential and important truth being gotten at—that this is old wine in a new bottle.
Here it is worthwhile to examine the responses of the ultra-reactionary David Horowitz and the supposedly antiwar Phyllis Bennis. First, on Horowitz. Horowitz is the originator of the so-called "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week," which is a week of campus events designed to demonize students from the Middle East generally and anyone who questions U.S. and Israeli policy and actions in the Middle East. Horowitz is a particularly vicious and despicable piece of work who specializes in hounding individual professors he deems unacceptable off campus and out of their profession. [For more on Horowitz, see "‘Balance’ Is The Wrong Criterion– And A Cover for a Witch-hunt – What We Need is the Search for the Truth: Education, Real Academic Freedom, Critical Thinking and Dissent", and "Resist "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week": Confront the Horowitz Fascists with Real Facts and Truth".
Yet here is Horowitz welcoming Obama’s speech with a June 5 essay on Salon.com! Horowitz hails Obama for"open[ing] the wound of 9/11 to justify America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq"; for "telling the Muslim world that the bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable" and, in particular, for emphasizing the Holocaust as the reason legitimating Israel’s actions; and for saying "in no uncertain terms that it was Palestinians who had to renounce violence (and here he drew no parallels and no moral equivalence) and had to recognize the Jewish state." But it wasn’t just, or even mainly, the particulars. The real "core of Obama’s speech," he writes, "was a defense of America’s founding and America’s mission."
"Conservatives will make a great mistake if they fail to see this speech for what it was, and treat it as another round in the partisan food fight," he writes. And he concludes: "As conservatives we have many quarrels with the Obama administration—and we should have. But this speech is not one of them." Horowitz, reactionary though he may be, understands the importance of ideology. And he is shrewd enough to perceive Obama’s highly ideological speech as something benefitting and lending legitimacy to his particular focus—the delegitimation of any opposition to the U.S. and to Israel.
Phyllis Bennis, meanwhile, apparently wishes to construct an alternate universe. Bennis is the chief Middle East expert for the revisionist-led United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and wrote "Changing the Discourse: First Step to Changing the Policy." Revisionism refers to political forces who claim to uphold socialism or Marxism, but in fact cut the revolutionary heart out of that. Bennis claims Obama’s speech "reflected a significant shift away from the ideological framework of militarism and unilateralism that shaped the Bush Administration’s war-based policy towards the Arab and Muslim worlds." Bennis goes on to enthuse that "the shift in discourse, away from justifying reckless imperial hubris, unilateralism and militarism and towards a more cooperative and potentially even internationalist approach was potent. The actual policy shifts were much smaller. It remains the work of mobilized people across the U.S. —with the millions who mobilized to build a movement capable of electing Barack Hussein Obama as President—to turn that new language into new policies—reversing the escalation and moving towards ending Obama's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ending the occupation of Iraq immediately rather than years from now, ending U.S. military aid to Israel and creating a policy based on an end to occupation and equality for all, launching new negotiations with Iran not based on military threats, implementing U.S. nuclear disarmament obligations, and more."
Bennis, using the method analyzed by A. Zee in "The Collapse of ‘The Movement’: the Resistance and the Revolutionary Movement We Need," pretends that Obama’s election was a result of people building a movement and that these same people can now persuade Obama to change his policies. No! Obama was brought forward and supported by powerful forces in the ruling class from the beginning, and part of the point of this was his ability to suck people into the pacifying channels of the elections. Contrary to Phyllis Bennis’ fantasy of "turning [Obama’s] new language into new policies," it is Obama himself who has consistently used language to shut off and smother and derail opposition into support for policies which, whether old or new, are and have been thoroughly reactionary and murderous.
Bennis goes on then to examine the speech in the eclectic style typical of both Obama and revisionism. As we noted above, Obama noted the U.S. role in the overthrow of an elected government in Iran (a fact very well-known in the Middle East and Iran itself!), only to immediately minimize it and equate it to actions undertaken by Iran against U.S. agents or troops in the region. Obama, in equating these two things, is attempting to conceal the truth of the matter—that the U.S. has dominated and/or attempted to dominate Iran for decades, at a horrific human cost, and is now threatening war against it; while Iran simply does not have the capability to do anything remotely similar to the U.S. This supposed even-handedness that conceals the brutal reality, this supposed candor that actually reveals nothing, is designed to serve Obama well when and if the imperialists decide to launch more serious aggression against Iran. "After all, he tried to make peace, didn’t he?" they’ll say. But in the alternate universe of Phyllis Bennis, this "is a huge step forward." This same method is repeated throughout her analysis.
That is the essence of eclectics: to enumerate both aspects of a contradiction but to put them on a par in order to thereby conceal which is the principal, and ultimately determining, aspect. It is a method that conceals the truth. It is not that Bennis has no criticism of Obama’s speech—she does; but such criticism serves to buttress her overall point, which is that people should, all-in-all, welcome Obama’s speech as a "discourse" that is designed to change U.S. policy in the Middle East. She argues that people can turn "the new language" in this speech into "new policies," which include ending the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, immediate withdrawal from Iraq, etc.
It is hard to overstate the damage of this view. Again, Obama chooses his language very carefully. Obama’s "new language" is, in its essentials and sometimes word for word, the same very old language used by Bush and every other American president. It is the language of the essential goodness of America and the righteousness of its wars; it is the language of America’s "right," therefore, to dominate and determine the destinies of the people on this planet. Moreover, Obama has the power—that is, he has been given the power by the imperialist ruling class, through its medium of elections—to put force behind whatever meaning he assigns to that language.
In fact, the whole point of this "new discourse" is to maintain the essential thrust and certainly the essential purpose of the Bush policies. This has been well understood and openly articulated by many in the ruling class, as we have shown here and elsewhere through numerous articles and exposures (see last week’s "Obama, Cheney, And The ‘Debate’ Over Torture"). It is only those with a bad case of denial and a deep desire for an easy way out who persist in the illusion that the change promised by Obama has anything to do with ending injustice and oppression. People like Phyllis Bennis do a serious disservice by using the influence and organizational ties she has to further mislead such people and, in the case of those who actually do want to see change, derailing them into the dead ends of lobbying, letter-writing, etc.—thoroughly enmeshed in the suffocating and exhausting confines of the system. Objectively, she is an enabler to complicity.
The fact that both Horowitz and Bennis, despite their real and obvious differences on many things, wind up basically supporting Obama’s speech, with a few secondary criticisms, reflects that both of them believe, if in different ways, in the assumptions and framework grounding that speech. It reflects the particular danger of the Obama presidency, with its quicksand-like common ground. It reflects the urgent need to critically examine and to break with the very assumptions that draws people into that quicksand.
Indeed, this speech once again makes clear that there is no change in the essential thrust of U.S. policies, because there is no change in how the imperialist ruling class, for which Obama speaks and to which he is beholden, perceives and understands what they have to do to maintain their position. There is no way out of the nightmare of a world trapped between what Bob Avakian has called "the two outmodeds"—the outmoded and reactionary relations represented by imperialism, whatever the variety of its ideology, and the reactionary and outmoded relations represented by the forces utilizing and grouped around Islamic fundamentalism—other than resisting and, in the course of that, "bringing forward another way." To again quote our Declaration on women’s liberation:
"What is urgently needed is to bring forward another way—a way that opposes BOTH of these reactionary and outmoded forces. And the more this kind of movement and powerful resistance is brought forward in the U.S., the more it will give air to breathe and initiative to genuine revolutionaries in parts of the world that are quite righteously hotbeds of hatred against U.S. imperialism.
"And what is needed, above all, is a revolution, to sweep away capitalism-imperialism, and all reactionary and outmoded systems and relations..."
Making such a revolution is, obviously, hard—very hard. But it is far more realistic than expecting anything from the chief representative of imperialism other than a defense and reinforcement of imperialism. For that is not just hard, but impossible.
1 - Spokespeople for U.S. imperialism routinely denounce Islamic fundamentalism—what they all leave out in their denunciations is the central role played by the U.S. in originally financing and backing these movements in order to crush communist and secular nationalist movements in those countries. This is also involved, quiet as it's kept, in the rise of Khomeini in Iran (See "30 years after the Iranian revolution" from A World To Win News Service, 2/23/09. In addition, during the 1980s, these forces were used as pawns by the U.S. to contend with the no-longer-socialist Soviet Union. [back]
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