As Obama Heads to Middle East and Europe, Let's Talk About U.S. Imperialism

Election '08

Just a week before Barack Obama's highly anticipated first tour of Europe and the Middle East as presidential candidate, CNN's Fareed Zakaria asked the Senator about the kinds of experiences that will inform his ability to occupy the most powerful foreign policy position on earth.

" ... what is your first memory of a foreign policy event that shaped you, shaped your life?" asked Zakaria. Obama invoked his childhood memories of Indonesia, where his mother worked for the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. And he did so with the poise that will ultimately vanquish the manufactured image of him as the Islamic garb-wearing threat depicted in political cartoons. With facial expressions and body language that made him look like the embodiment of sensitive, flexible yet tough cosmopolitanism, a very pensive and presidential-sounding Obama told Zakaria that he later learned that Indonesia fell victim to "an enormous coup, the military coup in which we learned later that over half-a-million people had probably died."

Most striking, Obama said, was how "the generals in Indonesia or members of Suharto's (who led the coup and ruled Indonesia for over 30 years) family were living in lavish mansions, and the sense that government wasn't always working for the people, but was working for insiders, -- not that that didn't happen in the United States," he added, "but at least the sense that there was a civil society and rules of law that had to be abided by." Obama's interview previewed the kind glamour and intelligence will help CNN reach American Idol in the ratings game while also positioning him to compete in the Great Game of geopolitics.

But as eloquent, smart and unMcCain-like as Obama sounded during the interview, his pre-foreign policy tour paean to U.S. civil society lacked any mention of how of the U.S. government was "working for the people" when its military aid paid for those Indonesian mansions in the late 1960's. Neither did his response to Zakaria mention what the U.S government did to enable one of the worst slaughters of the late 20th century: providing training to 1,200 of those generals and other Indonesian military officers and giving them the money, arms, intelligence and political support that caused catastrophic trauma. As a smart and sensitive boy who played soccer on Jakarta's dusty Haji Ramli Street, Obama surely felt this trauma among his friends and families devastated by state-sponsored terrorism and mass murder.

Nor did Obama mention in his interview the strategies in support of the military coup planned and executed out of the same embassy where his mother worked as an English teacher.

When asked by a reporter in 1990 about dissident lists prepared by the CIA and U.S. State Department and given to the Indonesian military during the coup, Robert J. Martens, a political attaché who worked at the embassy up until the year before Obama's mother did, replied: "It really was a big help to the (Indonesian) army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad."

While it's absurd to expect Obama to account for the violence and militarism of the U.S. government of his childhood, it is imperative that we hold him accountable to stopping the violence and militarism of the government he's preparing to lead as an adult.

As he's mobbed by throngs of Europoliticos anxious to take pictures with the telegenic Senator during his Grand Tour, the Kennedyesque Obama will also be greeted by thousands of cheering Europeans and Middle Easterners, some of whom will embrace him as a prophet of political good, one who hails the end of the Apocalyptically bad foreign policies of George W. Bush. But, as critically important as it is for Obama to deploy his global rock star appeal (he polls better around the world than he does in the U.S.) in the cause of healing the U.S. image abroad, the Camelot factor will go only so far; simply American Idol-ing -- making large crowds feel like their anti-war, anti-militarism vote actually counts -- Europe, the Middle East and the world will not work for very long on today's very tenuous geopolitical stage. The cheering crowds -- and we -- would be wise to stop for more than a few commercial breaks to ask what Obama's relationship will and should be to the bloody undercurrent running beneath both Bushism and the Indonesia policy of his childhood: U.S. militarism and empire.

Rather than simply view Obama's trip abroad as another photo-op in the American Political Idol narrative offered up by global media companies, we might instead use his visit to Europe and the Middle East as away to start communicating to him -- and to the world -- that we finally recognize the error of our imperial ways.

Simply voting for and electing Obama will not solve the crisis of the rapidly declining empire hidden behind mainstream media euphemisms like "superpower" or "leader of the free world;" He could simply become the darker-skinned, smarter, friendlier front man for the most massive military empire in history -- and we its willing imperial citizens, as indicated by George W. Bush's skyrocketing poll numbers immediately following the Iraq invasion in 2003. Given that numerous polls of world public opinion now tell us that militarism, military occupation and war have leveled love of the U.S. just about everywhere, a timely and critical question to ask Obama during and after his Grand Tour is, "How many of the 737 military bases the Pentagon maintains in over 130 foreign countries on every continent are you willing to close?"

And, given what economists like Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz tell us in thick books with startling titles like The Three Trillion Dollar War -- that militarism is at the center of our growing national and global economic crises (ie; military spending busts budgets and increases debt, war decreases the amount available oil, war spending diminishes money for bridges, schools and health care, etc.) -- we might also add the question, "And how quickly are you going to dismantle those bases?"

As Obama takes his charismatic calls for "change" global, neither he nor we can afford to continue turning a blind eye to the fact that all those bases, all those wars and all that imperial behavior have not just made us less safe in the world -- and much poorer; they also unleashed domestic threats to the "civil society and rule of law" that Obama waxed patriotic about during his interview: unilateral decisions to go to war based on lies (lies accepted and repeated by most major institutions), a constitution shredded in the name of "protecting the homeland," criminal corporations protected under cover of "national security" and an increasingly secretive executive branch accountable to no one.

Let us hope that Obama's Grand Tour speeches and interviews signal that his experience is leading him to see how unfettered militarism makes today's U.S. government resemble the Indonesian government circa 1967, the year a more innocent Barack Obama started living and playing in Jakarta.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney deserve much of the blame for the militaristic depredations that threaten the country and planet alike. But we ignore at our own risk the vast and well-rooted networks of political, military and economic interests that have long benefited from and enabled the machinations of empire. Our failure to push Obama to attack rather than promote U.S. militarism and empire will most certainly leave us vulnerable to a new era of "change," an era driven by the hydra-headed global dragon of free trade and militarism.

As he visits Europe, more specifically Britain, the former empire that brought us the American Idol TV sensation, Obama might benefit greatly by remembering the words of another British idol, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who in the heat of global war said in 1942, "I did not become Prime Minister to liquidate the British Empire." And then Obama might also remember what happened to Churchill just 3 years later, in 1945: he lost the election.

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