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Barack Obama: No Radicalism to Be Found

Barack ObamaA portion of the American people believe that President Barack Obama is a left-wing radical bent on transforming U.S. society in his image. There’s an easy way to dispel that misconception: Look at what he does and what he says.

In domestic affairs Obama has stayed within the narrow establishment zone. The health-care “debate,” for example, has featured no radical ideas but only an internecine dispute between the two factions of the ruling elite, which Auburn University political philosopher Roderick Long calls the plutocrats (those who want business to be the dominant partner) and the statocrats (those who want the politicians and bureaucrats to hold that position).

It is easy to become distracted by the relatively minor disagreements and overlook the broad accord that a government-corporate partnership should be in command, with the rest of us taking what they give us. Want evidence? Insurance-company stock prices rose as the Senate bill headed toward a vote.

But perhaps we should look to foreign and military policy. Here we were hoping for a little radicalism in the form of a rejection of the power elite’s commitment to U.S. global hegemony and American exceptionalism. But, alas, it was not to be. The stealth radical turns out to be in good standing with the establishment Council on Foreign Relations. Obama is alleged to be winding down an occupation (Iraq) that his predecessor was alleged to have been winding down, and he’s escalating one (Afghanistan and Pakistan) that his predecessor would have escalated. He said he’d close the prison at Guantanamo, but that’s been delayed. He says no more torture, but do we know what he really means? For one thing, he’s endorsed indefinite preventive detention. Moreover, his Justice Department took his predecessor’s position and defended a lower court ruling that protected Bush administration officials from a lawsuit for the torture and religious humiliation of four British detainees at Guantanamo. The Supreme Court declined to review the case, which suited the Obama administration just fine.

As William Fisher wrote at, “Channeling their predecessors in the George W. Bush administration, Obama Justice Department lawyers argued in this case that there is no constitutional right not to be tortured or otherwise abused in a U.S. prison abroad.” Or, in other words, the detainees are not persons. As a defense lawyer in the case, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, explained,

In many ways the opinion the Supreme Court left standing today is worse when one gets past the bottom line — no accountability for torture and religious abuse — and digs into the legal reasoning. One set of claims are [sic] dismissed because torture is said to be a foreseeable consequence of military detention. How will the parents of our troops captured in future foreign wars react to that? Another set of claims are [sic] dismissed because Guantanamo detainees are not “persons” within the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — an argument that was too close to Dred Scott v. Sanford for one of the judges on the court of appeals to swallow.

Obama’s endorsement of war

Obama’s words speak as loud as his actions. His Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech provides the proof. Obama did acknowledge the irony of accepting the prize while overseeing two occupations. (He neglected to mention the “secret” war, fought with pilotless Predators, in Pakistan.)

“Still, we are at war, and I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed,” he said.

He continued, “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Well, he might be right about not eradicating violent conflict, but mightn’t he make some small contribution in that direction by not dropping bombs on people? It is not nations that find the use of force necessary and morally justified; it is governments — make that hack politicians — who then proceed to hoodwink their populations into believing them.

He went on:

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life [sic] work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

At this point Obama made a move that could go down in history as one of the dumbest ever:

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies....

In reply to which, I can do no better than to quote Roderick Long:

[Obama] has the nerve to tell an audience of Scandinavians that “a nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”

That’s right: the president of the country that turned away Jews who were attempting to escape the Holocaust belittles the accomplishments of the people who actually saved their Jews from Hitler’s goons through the use of nonviolent resistance....

Long quotes from George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan’s catalogue of Scandinavia’s successful nonviolent resistance to Hitler’s forces — which saved nearly all the Jewish residents of the region. (See details at

If you are wondering why the record of nonviolent resistance to tyranny isn’t better known, recall the maxim (usually attributed, without evidence, to Winston Churchill), “History is written by the victors.”

Obama acknowledged that “there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.”

Reflexive suspicion? That’s all it is? Is there no possibility that it is a reasoned conclusion based on decades of brutal U.S. conduct in other countries?

No, for Obama that couldn’t be the case. He explained:

Whatever mistakes [sic] we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. [!] We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Taking the world for fools

What does Obama take the world for, the same kind of ignorant fools he assumes Americans are? The “mistakes” he might have been referring to were not errors. They were policies based on the ruling elite’s agenda and conviction that the U.S. government must be the world’s policeman if that world is to be amenable to American economic interests. Sure, security and stability (for U.S. “interests”) were the objectives. But insecurity and instability often had to be instigated along the way, as when a head of state “we” did not like was elected or when a society sought to be independent of the U.S.-led global order. The list of such places is long and spans several continents and decades. The details have been recorded for anyone who cares to know. (One can profitably start with Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, but there are many other good sources.)

“I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation,” Obama declared — failing to note that the U.S. government has regularly acted unilaterally when it had nothing whatsoever to do with defense — the blowback to which then justified more military action. Governments can be counted on to act as they wish and call it defense. None has done this so often or so easily as the U.S. government.

Obama then went on to endorse George H.W. Bush’s New World Order war to eject Iraq from Kuwait — but what did that have to do with defense? Here Obama casually assumes that America has been anointed to lead coalitions on crusades to right all wrongs. Apparently his only beef with George W. Bush is that not enough countries had been signed up.

Obama did concede that defense is not the only justifiable ground for military action. After stating that the United States should not expect other nations to follow rules it does not follow, he added, “And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.”

What other kinds of conflict had he in mind?

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

Armed intervention in other countries has always been justified as “humanitarian.” It’s like one of those oxymorons found in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But innocents are always killed at the hands of the interveners and the population of the intervening nation is subjected to further aggression through taxation, inflation, and sometimes conscription.

Obama is no pacifist or peacenik. He has no intention of pulling back American forces or American influence from the rest of the world and letting others go their own way. He may seem to deny American exceptionalism when he says the U.S. government must follow the same rules as others, but it is clear from this speech that America has prerogatives possessed by no one else. While he is in office, the American people will keep paying and foreigners will keep dying.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine.

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