Monday, October 24, 2011


Harry Targ

"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner...We value life and human dignity. They don't care about life and human dignity." General William Westmoreland interviewed in Hearts and Minds (1974), a documentary about the Vietnam War.

This past week American politics took a peculiar turn. A new narrative about the Obama administration began to be systematically presented to the liberal media audience. Reviewing his three-year-old administration, the new construction is that on the national security front Obama is markedly more tough and effective than Republicans claim.

The brutal murder of Muammar Qaddafi by rebellious opponents on global television, followed by celebratory remarks by the President, his Secretary of State and other members of the administration, capped three years of U.S. violence on people of the Global South. Many critics of Obama’s less than forceful advocacy of economic justice have shifted their focus to a frame of the President as resolute in protecting American national security in the face of a challenging world. They even have implied that Obama is more of a tough guy than his predecessor ever was.

What is the evidence for this? Frankly, President Obama has unleashed new variants of the U.S. killing machine. Violence against Asian, Middle Eastern and African people has been visibly celebrated in public view. The numbers of victims killed may not be greater than that of prior administrations but the celebration of public murders seem to have increased.

Early in the Obama administration, the president made a decision to assassinate Somali pirates, pirates who had kidnapped westerners off the Horn of Africa. Last May, with the President’s diplomatic team staring at a television screen during a nail-biting meeting, Navy Seals invaded the compound housing Osama Bin Laden who was unceremoniously killed and dumped in the sea. The media highlighted Americans who celebrated this killing.

Four months after the successful murder of Bin Laden, Obama’s crack team assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, American citizen and alleged leader of Islamic terrorists, who threatened the United States. Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki, his teen age son and others were summarily executed for crimes for which they had not been accused or tried.

In addition, President Obama agreed to work with allies, Great Britain and France, who held colonial empires in the Middle East and North Africa in the twentieth century. They mobilized a campaign in the United Nations to gain public legitimacy for military intervention in Libya to overthrow the long-time idiosyncratic leader, Qaddafi, whose tiny nation from time to time supported dissidents in the Arab and African worlds. The initial claim was that the force, a NATO operation, would be humanitarian, saving the lives of those who were rebelling against the Libyan dictatorship.

The rebels, contrary to the non-violent activists in Tunisia and Egypt where western support was minimal, were armed, probably by the West, and launched a civil war against the regime. Then NATO air power was used for seven months to pound Libya until the Qaddafi military collapsed. The “humanitarian” intervention took between 30,000 and 50,000 lives, dissidents as well as Qaddafi loyalists. Shortly after the war ended with the death and mutilation of the dictator’s body on a street in Sirte, President Obama declared victory for the Libyan people--although who the rebels were remains unclear--and pronounced what he referred to as a new measured and wise U.S. foreign policy.

The new foreign policy, what might be called the “Obama Doctrine,” has four parts. First, the United States, as the last remaining superpower, and as the defender of the global moral standard, could once again assume the right and responsibility to intervene militarily to preserve and enhance human rights around the world. As the President put it reflecting on the recent killings in a press conference after the death of Qaddafi was announced, U.S. actions have demonstrated “…the strength of American leadership across the world.”

Second, U.S. humanitarian interventions will be carried out in conjunction with military operations with our friends, presumably equally committed to high moral standards. In Obama’s words; “We’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.” NATO, an alliance established in 1949 to protect Western Europe and North America from security threats from “international communism,” now would police the world.

Third, new technologies make it possible for the United States to police the world without “boots on the ground.” Given the new technology, the free world can intervene virtually anywhere, anytime, through the use of incredibly sophisticated drone warfare. In the Libyan case, as the President said, “without putting a single service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.”

US/NATO warriors can target enemies without personal danger to themselves while working in antiseptic offices in the United States or Europe, or on small bases in the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, or Africa. Nick Turse, author of The Complex (2008) estimates that at least 60 drone bases are operational around the world ready to hit enemy targets virtually anywhere.

Fourth, the Obama Doctrine makes it clear that human life is not sacred and that due process, the hallmark of western legal traditions, is now superseded by the unilateral right of key decisionmakers to kill potential, as well as actual, enemies of the United States. To paraphrase the old definition of the state as that institution that holds the monopoly of the legitimate use of force, the state now holds the monopoly of legitimate use of murder.

In the end, the oft quoted remark by General William Westmoreland about the Vietnamese enemy in the 1960s may more accurately be restated: “The United States government does not put the same high price on human life as other countries.”

Fortunately for progressives, mass movements exist that show the world that many Americans do not stand with their government’s use of violence. Progressives oppose mass murder, targeted executions, the death penalty anywhere, and despicable drone warfare. Progressives also respect the right and responsibilities of others to choose their own political destinies.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Harry Targ

In this age of tweets, sound bites, and short-hand references to broad and complicated swaths of history, what political scientist Murray Edelman called “symbolic” politics, becomes “real” politics. Three symbols represent politics today; “drones,” “banks,” and “multitudes.”

Drones refer metaphorically to state-directed murder, often using the latest technology to target and assassinate those who have been defined by officials as the enemy or as threats to society, or just plain criminals. Based on recommendations by key decision-makers, civilian, military, and police, the U.S. has increasingly relied on new high-tech instruments of murder. Drones, smart bombs, and chemicals are used to kill, maim, and disable people abroad and at home with little or no threat to the safety of the personnel pushing the buttons, dropping the bombs, or spraying the victims. These newer forms of murder continue to be paralleled by a variety of police beatings and shootings and executions sanctified by governments attributing crime to the poor and people of color. The 21st century nation-state, to paraphrase sociologist Max Weber’s original definition, is the organization that holds the monopoly of the “legitimate” implementation of murder.

Banks are real but as symbols refer to a capitalist economic system which organizes workers to generate wealth which is increasingly appropriated by the few. In reality, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century saw huge manufacturing corporations mobilizing working classes and stealing the wealth that they produced. When rates of profit began to decline the corporate elites collaborated with the heads of banks, institutions which at one time served as the accountants and vaults for accumulated profits. Great mergers of manufacturing and banking capital in the early twentieth century and more so since the 1970s contributed to a new kind of capitalist economy based on finance. Most transactions now are speculative: buying and selling stocks and bonds, the creation of hedge funds, and real estate and insurance investments. Banks and investment houses are global. They produce enormous profit without creating useful products for people to use or consume. And, the banking metaphor represents a vision of an economic system that has become grotesquely unequal.

The third metaphor, the multitudes (borrowed from abstract formulations by Italian theorist Antonio Negri) refers to the rising up of masses of people-- the traditional working class, the unemployed, youth without hope, youth with vision, women long oppressed, people of all races, and people who clean streets or live on them, serve coffee at Starbucks, and even write software programs for big corporations. The multitudes, Negri suggests, represent the underside of a new global order, an economic empire that traverses the earth bursting out of its national and sovereign boundaries.

Drones and banks represent both the coercive and the manipulative power of capitalism. Americans see examples of each on television or computer screens every day. Just in the last two weeks U.S. drones killed U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen. Troy Davis, despite evidence raising reasonable doubt that he was guilty of a murder, was executed by the state of Georgia. And, the Bureau of the Census reported the rise of rates of poverty not seen in the United States since the 1990s and numbers of persons living in poverty larger than any time since the 1960s.

What is also becoming a regular feature of our electronic experience is resistance, anger, and collective mobilization. This is occurring all across the globe--Arab spring; student protest in Santiago, Chile; angry Israeli citizens; workers in Athens, Greece; students and public workers in Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana--and now undifferentiated groups occupying Wall Street and metaphorical Wall Streets around the United States.

It is unclear what will come of all of this except that the contradictions between drones and banks versus the multitudes is becoming more clear and that the transformation of society that is so desperately needed just might be emerging. Hope so.