January 10, 2009

You Aren't Going to Beat the System, Baby

As I am often compelled to do these days, I must begin with a principle which few seem to grasp, and even fewer are prepared to accept:
Any individual who rises to the national political level is, of necessity and by definition, committed to the authoritarian-corporatist state. The current system will not allow anyone to be elected from either of the two major parties who is determined to dismantle even one part of that system.
This principle applies to Barack Obama with regard to every policy of significance pursued by the United States government, as discussed in detail here and here. Obama fully accepts and agrees with the U.S. policy in pursuit of American global hegemony, to be maintained by a worldwide empire of bases and foreign intervention (covert or overt, depending on circumstances) and criminal, aggressive war as required.

In many essays, I have analyzed one of the primary delusions that afflicts many Democratic supporters and apologists. I say "afflicts," as if the problem is one forced upon innocent victims who unwillingly succumb to its symptoms. But such a characterization is frequently far too generous, especially when one considers the alacrity and enthusiasm with which prominent liberal and progressive writers and bloggers peddle obvious falsehoods. The specific delusion to which I refer is the utterly unfounded belief that "better" Democrats generally and Obama more particularly, via helpfully unidentified, mysterious, miraculous means, will "transform" the very nature of the United States as a political entity. (Obama, we are told with apparent seriousness, will change "the very nature of politics.") Let it be noted that "hope" of this kind -- hope which disregards history, even very recent history, and which eagerly discards genuinely serious political analysis as "cynical" or "irresponsible" -- is an exceedingly dangerous gateway drug, which may in time lead its users and countless truly innocent victims into a hell on earth beyond our worst imaginings.

Over three years ago, in December 2005, Naomi Klein wrote about what she called Bush's "infamous 'We do not torture' declaration." Klein noted the location of Bush's viciously dishonest pronouncement, Panama City, and further noted that it is but a short drive from there to the location of the School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984. She discusses the history of the evil taught at SOA, and some of the effects of that evil around the world. Klein then writes:
Suffice it to say that choosing Panama to declare "We do not torture" is a little like dropping by a slaughterhouse to pronounce the United States a nation of vegetarians.

And yet when covering the Bush announcement, not a single mainstream news outlet mentioned the sordid history of its location. How could they? To do so would require something totally absent from the current debate: an admission that the embrace of torture by US officials long predates the Bush Administration and has in fact been integral to US foreign policy since the Vietnam War.
Here, Klein herself is far too generous, and her truncated history is dangerously misleading. The U.S. government's embrace of torture unquestionably goes back to the monstrously inhumane occupation of the Philippines at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Moreover, when one considers the genocide of Native Americans and the centuries-long practice of slavery, one appreciates that systematized, institutional torture is as American as sickeningly rancid, fatally poisoned apple pie. If one views the American government as a brutally dysfunctional family, then, my friend, Mom and Pop are the torturers-in-chief. (This is true in a more literal manner than most people are willing to countenance. See all of my series on "On Torture" on this question -- and the last two parts in particular, here and here. Another essay also analyzes certain of the dynamics in play: "Let the Victims Speak.")

In her article about America's longstanding embrace of torture, Klein mildly takes William Pfaff to task for his minimizing of parts of this history. I had forgotten her disagreement with Pfaff on this point, and I find it of more than passing interest. As I noted in "'Regrettable Misjudgments': The Shocking Immorality of Our Constricted Thought," I respect much of Pfaff's analysis of the dynamics of geopolitical events and trends a great deal. But in that same essay, I noted a significant difference I have with one aspect of Pfaff's analysis. In considering how the myth of Good America and uniquely Good Americans collides with the reality of our own history, I wrote:
[A]s I have continued to reflect on these issues, I realize that I must strongly disagree with Pfaff's assessment that "the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless" during the first period of this nation's history, when our actions were largely confined to the continental U.S. For it was precisely during that period when the complex mechanisms of national self-delusion and lethal mythmaking became firmly entrenched in America's conception of itself. Consider two of the most momentous aspects of those first years for America: the continuing genocide of the Native Americans, until finally almost all of them were slaughtered -- and the monstrous evil of slavery, the importation and brutal enslavement of millions of human beings, accompanied by an endless train of horrors that almost forbid contemplation.

Consider those two facts in all their horror -- and then ask yourself what would be required culturally and psychologically to maintain a belief in a "national myth of divine election and mission" in the face of them. I have formulated that so as to underscore the problem: you cannot recognize these facts and simultaneously maintain a belief in the notion that the United States is a divinely "chosen" nation, a nation superior to all others, a nation of spotless moral glory. The myth can be maintained only by denying the greatest part of the truth -- denying the full nature of the genocide systematically committed over a long period of time, and denying the full implications of the institution of slavery, which similarly lasted for several hundred years. As the United States consolidated its grip on the North American continent, it consolidated and made impregnable its view of itself: the United States conquered territory, displaced huge populations, murdered, enslaved and slaughtered for God, for "national greatness," for "Manifest Destiny," for "freedom."

I would further submit that Woodrow Wilson was only able to expand this national vision to the entire world with the ease he did because it was so firmly implanted in American culture by the beginning of the twentieth century. It is true that Wilson utilized a deeply dishonorable and shamefully dishonest propaganda campaign to convince Americans of the need to enter World War I -- but that campaign ultimately connected to a belief system widely shared by Americans. Most Americans believed then, as they believe now, that they are "special" in a way that no other peoples are, that God favors them as He favors no one else, that our "mission" is a sacred one. One would think that a people which views itself as religious would reject a program so lacking in humility as "saving the world," but this is only one of many contradictions to be found in such a belief system. When Americans, including our political leaders, talk of "saving the world," they mean it. Given the weapons at our disposal, it is a frightening and terrifying belief to hold. As I have remarked before, for our national leaders and the foreign policy establishment: "America is God. God's Will be done."
As that last-linked essay demonstrates, Obama subscribes in full to this immensely destructive notion of America as "divinely" chosen to "save the world."

Here is Naomi Klein toward the conclusion of her article:
This casual amnesia does a profound disservice not only to the victims of these crimes but also to the cause of trying to remove torture from the US policy arsenal once and for all. Already there are signs that the Administration will deal with the current torture uproar by returning to the cold war model of plausible deniability. The McCain amendment protects every "individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government"; it says nothing about torture training or buying information from the exploding industry of for-profit interrogators. And in Iraq the dirty work is already being handed over to Iraqi death squads, trained by US commanders like Jim Steele, who prepared for the job by setting up similarly lawless units in El Salvador. The US role in training and supervising Iraq's Interior Ministry was forgotten, moreover, when 173 prisoners were recently discovered in a Ministry dungeon, some tortured so badly that their skin was falling off. "Look, it's a sovereign country. The Iraqi government exists," Rumsfeld said. He sounded just like the CIA's William Colby, who when asked in a 1971 Congressional probe about the thousands killed under Phoenix--a program he helped launch--replied that it was now "entirely a South Vietnamese program."

And that's the problem with pretending that the Bush Administration invented torture. "If you don't understand the history and the depths of the institutional and public complicity," says McCoy, "then you can't begin to undertake meaningful reforms." Lawmakers will respond to pressure by eliminating one small piece of the torture apparatus--closing a prison, shutting down a program, even demanding the resignation of a really bad apple like Rumsfeld. But, McCoy says, "they will preserve the prerogative to torture."
The Obama administration is not going to end the U.S. practice of torture. Instead, it will follow the route indicated by Klein: Obama may eliminate "small piece[s] of the torture apparatus" -- but he will not do more. He will certainly not take the steps necessary to eliminate this evil from our system of governance.

You need not look far for proof of this point, one I have been making for a very long time now. Some weeks ago, there was much furious denunciation of John Brennan, when it appeared he might be appointed head of the CIA. Much of the criticism focused on Brennan's support for torture. When Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for that post, rejoicing could be heard throughout the land, particularly among the liberal and progressive blogs. Justice and Truth had triumphed, and Evil had been vanquished. Torture would be no more, and America would return to her "true" values.

Here are those "true" values:
President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to scrap the way President Bush oversaw domestic security in the White House and name a former Central Intelligence Agency official to coordinate counterterrorism, people close to the transition said Wednesday.

The plan being discussed would eliminate the independent homeland security adviser’s office and assign those duties to the National Security Council to streamline sometimes overlapping functions. A deputy national security adviser would be charged with overseeing the effort to guard against terrorism and to respond to natural disasters.

Democrats close to the transition said Mr. Obama’s choice for that job was John O. Brennan, a longtime C.I.A. veteran who was the front-runner to head the spy agency until withdrawing in November amid criticism of his views on interrogation and detention policies. His appointment would not require Senate confirmation.
These passages from a followup story in the Washington Post are also worthy of note:
Obama aides said the president-elect accepted Brennan's assurances that he played no role in setting abusive interrogation practices at the CIA and that he had expressed some private dissent about the practices. They said Obama also accepted the judgment of transition team advisers that Brennan was separated from any questionable practices by Global Strategies, which formally purchased Brennan's firm in 2007.


Since the election, Brennan -- who retains all his top security clearances -- has been conducting briefings for Obama on the CIA's ongoing covert actions, and aides said he won Obama's support in those meetings as a "straight shooter" whom agency officials trust. He has "unrivaled integrity" and a "great understanding of how all the parts of official Washington are affected by intelligence," McDonough said.
I will only briefly note that you should not believe to any extent at all the contention in the WaPo story that Brennan advocates "a sharp break" with U.S. policy on the Middle East and Iran. Brennan may say that the U.S. should "be willing to exercise strategic patience" with Iran -- but this is simply another way of saying, as Obama does, that the U.S. government should engage in a bit more diplomacy first. Then, if Iran fails to act in precisely the manner demanded by the U.S., missiles away. See "Songs of Death" and "So Iran Gets Nukes. So What?" for the details.

The overall course the Obama administration will follow will be that indicated by Klein with regard to torture, and the same stratagem will be applied to the use of torture, to confrontation with Iran, and to every other issue of significance. Klein refers to the removal of "small piece[s]" of the torture apparatus, and the return to "plausible deniability." We can make the same point in a different way: the Obama administration will return to the days when the U.S. government practiced all these horrors, but with better PR.

You should read all of Klein's commentary on this specific issue; here is just part of it:
Other cultures deal with a legacy of torture by declaring "Never again!" Why do so many Americans insist on dealing with the current torture crisis by crying "Never Before"? I suspect it has to do with a sincere desire to convey the seriousness of this Administration's crimes. And the Bush Administration's open embrace of torture is indeed unprecedented -- but let's be clear about what is unprecedented about it: not the torture but the openness. Past administrations tactfully kept their "black ops" secret; the crimes were sanctioned but they were practiced in the shadows, officially denied and condemned. The Bush Administration has broken this deal: Post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame, legitimized by new definitions and new laws.
As Klein discusses, practicing torture openly and without apology is certainly a development of significance -- but using this alteration in the previous scheme of denial to obliterate the reality of our government's history on torture constitutes only a new form of denial. It also, hardly incidentally, makes it impossible to eradicate this monumental evil. More narrowly, and more contemptibly, it permits Democratic partisans and apologists to pretend that torture is only a Republican sin, when this contention is a notably awful lie. To the extent writers and bloggers wish to advance lies of this kind, they are nothing more than the worst kinds of hacks and propagandists, on a par with rightwing versions of similar evil.

In "Cui Bono? -- and Bush's Monstrous, Deadly Dare," I analyzed what the Bush administration had changed -- and, of equal importance, what it had not changed. What I called Bush's "deadly dare" is especially relevant here, and this is how the opening of that "dare" went:
We're doing what this government has done for over a hundred years. We start wars of aggression to establish American dominance around the world. We began that policy in the 1890s, and we've never stopped. Sometimes we do it through covert operations, and by toppling regimes that won't do as we demand. Sometimes we simply invade and bomb them.

And we've used torture as a standard means of warfare for decades. We just used to hide it better, and we had better PR about how we weren't "really like that." Some of you even said you wanted torture to be brought out "into the open." So we did that.

Beginning with Woodrow Wilson and even before that, the ruling class has wanted a powerful police state here at home. We never kept it a secret, but we made it go down more easily with flowery talk and nice phrases.

We decided to do away with all the camouflage. We recognized what the actual aims had been all along and we agreed with them, so we decided to bring it all out into the open.
There's more.

It now appears that the response of the Obama administration (and of most of its already dedicated defenders) to the horrors of the past eight years will be what I have predicted all along -- the response that is, in fact, necessitated by our corporatist-authoritarian-militarist form of government: a return to "camouflage" and better public relations, and a return to "plausible deniability." And the torture will go on, as will the wars of aggression.

Will more effective PR silence those who have criticized the U.S.'s acts of brutality and inhumanity so strenuously, but almost exclusively when those acts have been practiced by Republicans? We shall see soon enough. If we are to judge from the blanket of silence that has greeted the latest acts of barbarity and slaughter occurring in the Middle East and Obama's loathsome complicity, Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches will bring an end to almost all meaningful opposition -- which is also an argument I have made repeatedly.

I have a slim hope that it might be otherwise, but that hope is exceedingly fragile. Thus far, Obama has proven very expert at realizing he can do virtually anything, and only the rare, lonely voice will be raised in protest. I truly dread what the future may hold in store.

(I have begun writing the first installments of my tribalism series, which will explore many of the issues touched on above in greater depth. I hope to publish the beginning of that series in the next several days.)