The Empire and Inequality Report
Orders of Criminality
In a recent Sunday New York Times “week in review” section, liberal columnist Frank Rich ended one of his weekly opinion pieces by referring to the occupation of Iraq as “the tragedy of our age.” (New York Times, December 9, 2006)
There were at least two problems with this statement. First, Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.) is best understood not so much as a “tragedy” or (to use some of the related words that show up in the thesaurus) “calamity” or “misfortune” but rather as a terrible transgression -- a great imperial crime that has had tragic yet thoroughly predictable consequences for millions of Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Second, while O.I.L. is an unforgivable and monumental wrong, it is not in fact the leading crime or tragedy of our age. It’s not a bigger crime/tragedy than the ongoing and related petro-capitalist destruction of the planet’s capacity to serve as a viable habitat for all but a small and privileged slice of currently existing humanity. We are learning that Al Gore’s ironically chilling “An Inconvenient Truth” understated the pace at which the United States-led melting of the earth is unfolding, with disastrous consequences evident every passing day.
The occupation of Iraq is not a bigger sin than the persistent and deepening concentration of wealth -- another lovely outcome of global capitalism -- within and between nations in a world where more than two billion people live on less than a dollar a day even while a tiny “elite” enjoy lives of unimaginable, escalating opulence. As billions struggle to maintain a minimal material existence from one day to the next, the global finance leader Goldman Sachs recently made special Christmas bonus payments as high as $100 million to some its leading, already filthy rich traders.
The imperial crimes in Iraq are not a bigger offense than the persistence at home and abroad of a deep stealth and societal racism -- an increasingly covert and therefore all the more insidious white supremacism intimately bound up with ecocide and class injustice.
But I do not want to set up a false dichotomy between structures and events. O.I.L. is in expression of these deeper and more structurally entrenched, “systemic” crimes.
For all their legendary incompetence, Cheney and Bush have accomplished real and big missions for the people that George W. Bush once half-jokingly referred to as “my base”: the super-rich.
The Bubble-Boy-King may well go down as the Worst President Ever. But let’s not fool ourselves about who policy really serves in our corporate-plutocratic “dollar democracy.” Bush and his handlers have been quite successful for those they actually represent -- the privileged few -- in numerous ways. They have quite competently enhanced the upward distribution of wealth and income (while calling for national sacrifice in their state-terrorist “war on terror”) in what was already the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far. They have rolled back labor and environmental protections and speeded up the deepening global warming catastrophe.
They have drastically increased the government’s powers to operate in secret and to spy on and otherwise harass its own citizenry. They have worked brilliantly to further discredit government and feed political cynicism and hopelessness in the minds of the populace. They have generated enormous fear and insecurity at home and abroad. They have dramatically advanced the core ruling-class project of bankrupting the left hand of the state (the part that serves the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority) while strengthening the state’s right hand (the part that serves the rich and powerful and punishes the poor).
The already half-forgotten Katrina fiasco may have been a great black eye for the Bush legacy. But it was richly consistent with the core business class idea that the only legitimate functions of government are to fight wars, repress dissent, punish (and discipline and warehouse) the poor, and generally serve the selfish needs of the investor class. It reinforced the notion that “big government doesn’t work” -- a useful cover story for plutocrats who want a right-handed state that works well-funded marvels for the privileged while pleading cash-poor powerlessness when it comes to serving ordinary and poor people.
Along the way the war on Iraq has helped Washington render officially invisible its ongoing crimes against Afghanistan, site of what “liberals” like to call the “good” front in the “war on terror.” It has provided an occasion for the United States to build the world’s largest (and most militarized) embassy in Baghdad and to construct a large number of massive and permanent military bases in a nation that is home to the second largest stock of oil reserves (mostly untapped by the way) in the world. The US is preparing to impose an Iraqi Petroleum Law that will permit US oil companies to tap Iraq's vast and largely undeveloped oil reserves (the second-largest in the world), to be largely privatized, on lucrative terms.
This is one of the recommendations of the imperialist Iraq Study Group Report, which ironically claims to urge the administration to foreswear any ambitions to control Iraq oil and to maintain permanent military bases in Iraq. The report also includes a loophole (Recommendation/Catch 22) whereby such bases can remain in place upon the “request” of the occupation Iraqi government. But of course: American oil firms like ExxonMobil, Chevron are ready to rock in Iraq and they need the world’s leading military close by to guarantee security.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq provided an opportunity for Washington to demonstrate its capacity to implement policy over and against massive popular protest and in defiance of public opinion. It has been a great for illustrating the purported irrelevance of the mere citizenry in “the world’s greatest democracy.” It has also re-advertised the absence of any deterrent state or coalition ready or able or willing to significantly challenge the US on the global stage.
The war has further disorganized and assaulted the shattered ranks of the American lower and working classes by flooding the imperial homeland’s proletariat with waves of physically and emotionally damaged occupation veterans.
It has been an enormous profit windfall for leading shareholders and managers at such wonderful agents of global harmony as the Boeing Corporation, Halliburton, and Raytheon. These and other giant “defense” (war) corporations have made a financial killing on the all the Arab killing the Pentagon has been orchestrating in recent years. The miserable war masters who own and run these powerful, mass-murderous institutions are crying about dead GIs all the way to the bank, their favorite investment houses, and their luxury vacation homes.
And then there’s the “opportunity cost” imposed on progressives. “Opportunity cost” is a term from academic economics meaning simply that an application of resources to one area means a loss of resources to another area. Every minute spent exposing and/or resisting the criminal occupation of Iraq is not spent more directly exposing and resisting the underlying socioeconomic regime that selects such imperial crimes while undermining livable ecology, democracy, and justice on a daily basis. The deeper questions fade -- quite tragically if you agree with me that the human species cannot survive another century of capitalist dominance -- as you get sucked into the important details of trying to help people dig out of the new historical hole the masters have built with their latest criminal war. Baghdad is burning but the planet is melting and everyday is adding thousands to the ranks of Slum Planet’s rising mass of extremely poor.
This is what the hard right in power does: it ties you done with fighting the most primitive and elementary barbarism while the broader, underlying crimes get something of a reprieve. This is another Mission Accomplished for the criminals in charge. It is also a reminder of why it matters not to let Messianic Militarist (Ralph Nader’s characterization of Bush II in late 2004) Crackheads in the White House if you can help it. Kerry may have been corporate-neoliberal Pepsi in 2004, but Bush wasn’t Coke. He was and is Crack.
Obama’s Sickening Embrace of Imperial Criminality in Iraq
None of which is meant to deny the criminal complicity practiced by the pathetic Democratic wing of the US Chamber of Commerce Party. Instead of tackling that gigantic topic (worthy of a multi-volume study), I will merely note one especially noxious example of elite Democratic enablement of imperial criminal criminality in Iraq: presidential hopeful and overnight national Barockstar Obama’s “mush-mouthed” (Glen ford and Peter Gamble) pronouncements on the brazenly imperialist invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia .
Obama’s handlers and supporters place considerable emphasis on the claim that the junior Senator from Illinois has voiced a “consistent position against the [Cheney-Bush] war” (see Frank Rich, “Obama is not a Miracle Elixer,” New York Times, 22 October 2006). The assertion has some technical accuracy; Obama has publicly questioned the Bush administration’s case for war since the fall of 2002. But serious scrutiny of his “antiwar position” shows that the supposedly “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” Obama speaks in deferential accord with the heavily ideological and lunatic doctrine of Empire. In Obama’s carefully crafted rhetoric, O.I.L. has been a “strategic blunder” on the part of an essentially benevolent nation.
Given his presidential ambitions, it is unthinkable for him to admit the invasion’s status as a great international transgression that is consistent with the United States’ long record of imperial criminality. It is equally unimaginable for him to acknowledge that the war expressed Washington ’s drive to deepen US control of super-strategic petroleum resources in the world’s energy heartland -- an imperial ambition that was directly opposed to the alleged US goals of encouraging “Iraqi Freedom” and exporting “democracy.”
In a recent address designed to display his foreign policy bona fides, Obama showed his continuing willingness to take seriously the childish claim O.I.L. was an effort to “impose democracy” on Iraq. He even faulted the Bush administration for acting in Iraq on the basis of unrealistic “dreams of democracy and hopes for a perfect government” (Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 22 2006)
Consistent with his denial and embrace of Washington ’s imperial ambitions, Obama has refused to join genuinely antiwar forces in calling for a rapid and thorough withdrawal of troops and an end to the ongoing atrocity that is the occupation of Iraq. In a critical November 2005 speech to the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Obama rejected Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) call for a rapid redeployment and any notion of a timetable for withdrawal. Obama’s call for “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq” included repeated references to the need to “defeat” the “insurgency” -- a goal that mean continuation of the war. As the left black commentators Glen Ford and Peter Gamble (Ford and Gamble, 2005) noted in a critical analysis of Obama’s CFR address:
“In essence all Obama wants from the Bush regime is that it fess up to having launched the war based on false information and to henceforth come clean with the Senate on how it plans to proceed in the future. Those Democrats who want to dwell on the past -- the actual genesis and rational for the war and the real reasons for its continuation -- should be quiet. Obama and many of his colleagues are more interested in consulting the Bush men on the best way to “win” the war than in effecting an American withdrawal at any foreseeable time. They want ‘victory’ just as much as the White House. They just don’t want to the word shouted at every press conference. [Obama] would perfect the process. One might just as well perfect the act of rape. . . . Obama and his chosen military mentors believe that an occupation of 80,000 Americans rather than the current 160,000 is only half an occupation, which can then be scaled down of varying degrees of less than occupation (the rape analogy works well, here)” [Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, “Obama Mouths Mush on War,” Black Commentator, Issue 161, December 1, 2005].
Obama’s recent (November 20, 2006) speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) advocates a vaguely timed Iraq “scenario” in which “US forces” might remain in the occupied state for an “extended period of time.” Obama advances a “reduced but active [US military] presence” that “protect[s] logistical supply points” and “American enclaves like the Green Zone” (site of one of the largest and most heavily militarized imperial “embassies” in history) while “send[ing] a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and Syria that we intent to remain a key player in the region.” US troops “remaining in Iraq” will “act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists.” This is part of what Obama meant when he told a grotesquely fawning David Brooks that (in Brooks’ approving language) “the US may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq” (David Brooks, “Run, Barack, Run,” New York Times, 19 October 2006).
Never mind that the recent mid-term elections and a mountain of polling data show that the majority of Americans support rapid US withdrawal, as do l. So, of course, do the vast majority of the Iraqi people -- the purported beneficiaries of Dick Cheney’s supposed “dreams of democracy.”
Revealingly enough (in an imperial sort of way), the only polling data that Obama referenced in his CCGA speech and in the foreign policy chapter of his recent and ironically titled campaign book (Audacity of Hope) is meant to illustrate what he considers to be the real danger in the wake of the O.I.L. fiasco: that Americans are leaning dangerously towards “isolationism” and thus turning their backs on the noble superpower’s global “responsibilities.”
At one terrible point in his CCGA oration, Obama had the cold imperial audacity to say the following in support of his disturbing claim that US citizens have strongly supported “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved [in support of O.I.L.] They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.”
This was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for colossal US war atrocity -- the crimes included the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city -- by the US military in April and November of 2004. The town was designated for punishment as an example of the awesome state terror promised to those who dared to resist US power.
Not surprisingly, Fallujah is a leading symbol of rapacious American imperialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is a deeply provocative and insulting place for Obama to choose to highlight American sacrifice and “resolve” in the imperialist occupation of Iraq.
Perhaps Obama would like to broaden his interpretation historically and make reference to the noble “sacrifice” and “resolve” that Americans showed in past massacres at places like Mystic River, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Luzon (in the US-occupied Philippines), No Gun Ri (Korea), My Lai (Vietnam), Panama City (1989), and the southern Iraq “Highway of Death.” (1991) How about the Nazi assault on Guernica (1936), to which many observers have likened the US actions against Fallujah?
The next most offensive moment in Obama’s CCGA speech came in its twenty-fourth paragraph, where he said that a “timetable” for “phased withdrawal” of US troops would “send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the US is not going to hold together the country indefinitely [emphasis added] -- that it will it be up to them to form a viable government that can effectively run and secure Iraq.” This was a remarkable statement from an ostensibly “antiwar” Senator from a military superpower that has spent nearly four years deliberately tearing apart the society and public capacities of what was an already desperately poor and devastated (thanks in preponderant measure to US policy actions since at least the First Persian Gulf War) nation.
The vicious and ongoing US assault was naturally missing from Obama’s claim last November that “Iraq is descending into chaos based on ethnic divisions that were around long before American troops arrived.” Beyond its belated dating of Iraq’s collapse into civil war, this morally challenged formulation neglects the imperial assault’s role in smashing the public institutions that had restricted internal Iraq “chaos.” It naturally deletes the more specific role of the invaders in actively setting Iraqis against each other along ethnic lines.
Only slightly less odious, perhaps, was B.O.’s false praise of US occupation soldiers for “performing their duty with bravery, with brilliance, and without question” (CCGA speech). It’s hard to determine which is more disturbing in this comment: Obama’s blindness (intentional or not) to the important and welcome fact that many troops do in fact strongly question the war or his upholding of the unquestioning execution of frankly criminal military orders as a good thing!
Historians will try to disentangle Bush and Cheney’s (and for that matter Obama’s) motives, but the unpleasant reality is that the current administration and its many bipartisan enablers conduct and support criminal policies because they can. “We the people” let the petro-plutocratic and proto-fascistic George W. Bush (well, Cheney) regime commit horrible crimes. And we let Obama let Bush happen.
The Cheney-Bush team and the rest of the ruling class know all about it. The imperial boy-king has gotten over his “thumping” last November. He thinks even the tepid recommendations of the conservative Iraq Study Group Report are an offense to his messianic mission. He’s shaking off the revulsion of the mere citizenry and preparing for another Surge in Iraq. “So what if you oppose everything I’m doing? I do not answer to you,” Bush is telling the American populace. “Do something about it, if you can! I dare you!”
We have a decision: do we dare? Are “we the people” in the “world’s greatest democracy” mere spectators of evil empire, ecocide, racism and inequality? Or are we citizens of democracy, peace, sustainability and justice? We need to become active and radically democratic participants in the salvation and wielding of our own popular government. It’s going to involve a Hell of a lot more than going into a narrow-spectrum voting once every four or two years.” And we better get started. The hour,” to quote Bob Dylan, “is getting late.” Just ask a good climatologist.
Paul Street is a veteran radical historian, journalist, and activist living in the Midwestern center of the US. “The Empire and Inequality Report” is his weekly news and commentary letter. Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005). His next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007). He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Other Recent Articles by Paul Street
To the Killing
Floor: Mid-Term Reflections