Thursday, May 29, 2014


Harry Targ

President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries. That conclusion can be heard not just from Republican hawks but also from senior officials from Singapore to France and, more quietly, from some leading congressional Democrats. As he has so often in his political career, Mr. Obama has elected to respond to the critical consensus not by adjusting policy but rather by delivering a big speech (Washington Post editorial, May 28, 2014).

President Obama gave what was framed as a major foreign policy address to a West Point graduating class on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Many peace activists hoped for a forthright statement on the limits of U.S. power and expressions of humility about the correct role of the country in the world. They should be sorely disappointed. Paradoxically, though, the most militaristic segment of the foreign policy establishment, such as reflected in the Washington Post editorial, cited above, implied that the Obama statement signaled retreat and defeat in the face of a world which the U.S. should be directing.

Interpreters supporting Obama’s offering likened it to the dramatic statements made over fifty years ago by former President Eisenhower. For example, the Cold War President declared in 1953 that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed….This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” Seven years later in his famous farewell address Eisenhower warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Other influential foreign policy analysts such as Arkansas Senator William Fulbright spoke of “the arrogance of power.” Dr. Martin Luther King in his famous speech at Riverside Church in 1967 decried the abomination of killing overseas and ignoring poverty at home. And President Carter in 1979 condemned government by special interests that created gridlock and dysfunctionality.

No part of President Obama’s major foreign policy address rose to the heights of clarity and truth as these famous statements from the past. Instead he continued to highlight international terrorism as the number one concern of U.S. policymakers. He identified extremists in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and other vulnerable countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey which required attention.  To prepare for the ongoing terrorist threat he proposed that Congress establish a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund totaling $5 billion. He also indicated that the United States was willing to help some of the opposition to the government of Syria. In the spirit of the old Nixon Doctrine, Obama seemed to be suggesting that the United States would help allies in Syria and elsewhere fight against adversaries they and we faced.

Also the President continued to frame his remarks within the narrative of American exceptionalism. Not only is the U.S. militarily superior to most of the world’s nations combined, he suggested, but it remained the beacon of hope for humankind. The Reagan era “City on the Hill” metaphor still framed the rhetoric of this President as it did virtually every other post-World War II President.

Contemporary U.S. foreign policy, Obama claimed, has been successful in ending two wars, eliminating the global terrorist leadership, giving support to the democratization of Ukraine, challenging Russian expansion in Central Europe and working to counterbalance Chinese hostilities against her neighbors. In addition, the United States is having some success negotiating with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. But, the President said, despite these foreign policy achievements, more needs to be done.  
President Obama endorsed once again the belief in the special responsibility of the United States to the world, the need to help others fight terrorism, opposing big power expansion of Russia and China, pressuring Iran to end its commitment to nuclear weapons, and promoting what former President Clinton called “market democracies.” 
But recognizing the demonstrated opposition of the American people to more foreign wars, Obama stressed limiting military engagement (at least the use of large land armies), expanding the use of diplomacy, working with allies (what used to be called “collective security”), participating in international institutions such as the United Nations, and in serious cases applying economic sanctions. 

It is the non-military parts of the Obama speech that peace activists should mobilize around, weak as they are:

America must always lead on the world stage. But U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

For the peace movement supporting diplomacy, collective security, and economic sanctions as opposed to covert operations and war are not enough. The peace movement should;

-challenge the view that “America is the indispensable nation.” This is pure ideology that permeates media punditry, popular culture, and education from kindergarten through graduate schools. 

-bring the concept of imperialism back into public conversation, particularly arguing that United States foreign policy has been driven by economic interests by financial and manufacturing capital, and energy interests.

-raise again the ugly truth that the United States has been the major source of death and poverty all across the face of the globe since the end of World War II, particularly targeting people of color.

Americans should be reminded that, as President Eisenhower and Dr. King suggested, U.S. militarism has impacted negatively on the lives of most of the population, while it has buoyed the profits of the military/industrial complex.

In the end, in the climate of 21st century U.S. militarism, President Obama’s proclamations about using “soft power” rather than war as the number one instrumentality of U.S. foreign policy should be supported and encouraged. But that is only a modest beginning.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Harry Targ

Stop Police Crimes!

End Mass Incarceration!

Free All Political Prisoners!

(Rally with Angela Davis, Trinity United Church of Christ, part of the National Forum on Police Crimes, Chicago, Illinois, May 17, 2014).

It was inspiring and informative attending the rally with Angela Davis and the celebration of the lifelong political work of Charlene Mitchell, the founder of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR). The rally and award ceremony honoring Davis and Mitchell capped a two-day National Forum on Police Crimes at the University of Chicago.

The National Forum held workshops highlighting police crimes against undocumented and other immigrant workers, the labor movement and all workers, the LGBTQ community, women, peace and solidarity activists, and people of color.

Central themes reflected in the workshops and the rally included the current condition of police misconduct in the United States, an analysis of the fundamental role of the police and incarceration in the United States, the interconnectedness of forms of repression and the struggles against them, and the twin roles of repression and ideology as the glues holding together a global political economy in crisis. Lastly, the celebration of the 41 years of the NAARPR illustrated the possibilities of struggle and victory.

The call for the National Forum highlighted the contemporary crises of civil rights and civil liberties including:

-a “national epidemic” of police and vigilante killings of young African American men, such as Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant;

-the mass incarceration of people of color such that, as Michelle Alexander has reported,  more African Americans are in jail or under the supervision of the criminal justice system today than were in slavery in 1850;

-the targeting and deportation of millions of immigrants;

-the institutionalization of laws increasing surveillance;

-the passage of so-called Stand Your Ground laws, justifying gun violence against people perceived as a threat;

-and the continued persecution of  political prisoners from the recently convicted Occupy Movement activist Cecily McMillan, to the thirty-year listing of exiled Assata Shakur, living in Cuba, as one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, despite the fact that her original  conviction  for murder was based on faulty evidence.

Several speakers during the rally made it clear that the primary purpose police forces play in the United States is to protect the stability of the existing economic and political system. In short, the police in virtually every community serve the interests of what Occupiers call the one percent in opposition to the 99 percent. 

While laws and police often come to the aid of aggrieved members of communities, their primary function is to protect the unequal distribution of wealth and income and political power. The physical presence of police, with larger numbers in poor and Black and Brown communities than others, constitutes a threat to the physical survival of people, particularly young men. For most people in poor communities of color, the police represent an occupying power. 

Police repression in the United States is embedded in the history of slavery, institutionalized racism, the legitimized use of violence, and the interconnectedness of violence against African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays, transgender people, and workers. Further, police repression on a global basis serves to impose policies in keeping with neoliberal globalization; including the privatization of public institutions, cutting back on social safety nets, opposing demands by low-wage workers for economic justice, and extracting larger shares of the value of the labor of workers. Since the embrace of neoliberal policies virtually everywhere in the world, economic inequality has grown dramatically. With growing protest activities, police and military repression has increased as well.

Speakers suggested that the criminal justice system--the police, prisons, and laws restricting political participation—is a form of direct violence; that is seeking to create pliant behavior by force or the threat of force. Further, the criminal justice system is an instrumentality of structural violence; protecting the various forms of exploitation and oppression embedded in the society at large.

In addition it is replicated in the broader culture. Mass media romanticize police behavior, courts of law, even vigilante forms of violence. Police programs, the portrait of scientists engaged in uncovering crimes, and even police comedies pitting bungling but wise police investigators against incorrigible criminals give credence to the necessity of police, prisons, oppressive laws, and the need for order. Consumers of pop culture are rewarded for their willing acceptance of the systems of control as they exist for an hour or two of entertainment. Besides, most people think, what are the alternatives to armed police, laws, prisons, and the right-to-bear arms?

The National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression successfully struggled to free Angela Davis and many others falsely incarcerated and inspired mobilizations of activists everywhere to protest police violence, prisons, the death penalty, and Stand Your Ground laws. The Alliance in Chicago continues the struggle and has demanded civilian control of the police. 

Angela Davis posed the vision of an unarmed police force administered by the community and the elimination of prisons entirely. While these proposals cannot be achieved in the short run, she and the Alliance believe as the World Social Forum suggests, “Another World is Possible.” To make these visions reality they say, “a multi-racial, multi-national and multi-cultural broad-based movement” is needed to create “united democratic action.”   

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Harry Targ

Energy can be used as a weapon. You don’t have to go further than the headlines today to see that’s true….We’re doing this to become better war fighters.” (Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, quoted in “Purdue, Navy to Unite on Energy Research,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, May 9, 2014).

At a public assembly celebrating a formal agreement endorsed by the United States Navy and Marine Corps and Purdue University, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and President Mitch Daniels extolled the virtues of future research collaboration. 

Mabus pointed out that the Navy expects that one-half of its energy consumption by 2020 will come from alternative sources of energy and a research partnership with universities such as Purdue will ensure the achievement of that goal.  All of this work, the Secretary said, would support the Navy and Marine Corps effort to remain the nation with the leading “warfare capacity” in the world. A spokesperson from the Purdue Energy Center declared that the agreement shows that the Navy and Purdue University are natural partners. Quoting Mabus again: “We’re going to benefit from the brains, research and talent of Purdue.”

The positive side of this agreement is that a multi-billion dollar defense program is committing itself to the development of alternative energy sources for its projects. What the self-congratulatory comments from the Navy and the university leave out is the alternative to research and development of new energy sources for maintaining the U.S war machine. Another approach to national security policy that should be discussed is downsizing a military machine that uses (wastes) scarce resources for purposes of global domination.

Even though pressures to cut federal budgets across the board, including defense, are great, the Obama Administration remains committed to stabilizing or increasing U.S. naval capabilities in the Pacific.  For example, in a 2013 Wall Street Journal story Julian E. Barnes reports that the Pentagon is planning to shift the bulk of its “naval assets” to Asia. Barnes quoted former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who declared that by 2020 sixty percent of “cruisers, destroyers, submarines and other warships” would be stationed in the Pacific. Barnes pointed out that the shift from a bi-ocean navy to an Asian based navy would please U.S. allies who feel threatened by Chinese hegemony in the region (

In February, 2014 current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans to cut defense capabilities, presumably to meet budgetary demands. However, Hagel announced that the Navy would purchase two destroyers and two new submarines. Thom Shanker and Helene Cooper wrote (The New York Times, February 23, 2014), “Although consideration was given to retiring an aircraft carrier, the Navy will keep its fleet of 11-for now.”

Jaime Fuller wrote an article in The Washington Post, (“Four Factors Shaping President Obama’s Visit to Asia,” April 23, 2014) highlighting President Obama’s visit to Asia. The article discusses the historical evolution of the “Asian pivot” policy initiated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 and endorsed by the President. A centerpiece of the shift of U.S. military policy to an Asian focus includes renewing U.S. access to naval bases in the Philippines, supporting expansion of the Japanese military, and responding to a Chinese naval buildup in the Pacific. The author asserts that “through its navy, China hopes to reshape the balance of power in Asia. The naval competition in the western Pacific will set the tone for a large part of global politics in the coming decades.”

The “liberal” media, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, are not the only purveyors of information about the need for a strong navy. The conservative newspaper The Washington Times published an article by Bill Gertz on May 7, 2014, with the title, “Inside the Ring: China’s Missile Cruiser a Major Step to Naval Warfare Buildup.” The article describes China’s development of “an advanced guided missile cruiser that represents a major component of Beijing’s large-scale naval warfare buildup.” To the chagrin of Gertz, the United States is not planning on building such cruisers.  In terms of U.S. military security, the article quotes Rick Fisher, “a Chinese military affairs analyst,” who claims that U.S. military planners are not able to fulfill “ ‘Air Sea battle’ strategies to counter China’s increasingly capable ‘anti-access’ threats in East Asia”  because of Obama’s short-sighted concern about nuclear weapons and his domestic agenda. 

These news items suggest curious connections. First, major research institutions such as Purdue University remain instrumentalities of the military. And, even if research programs are addressing fundamental human problems such as saving the environment and reducing commitments to a fossil fuel economy, they are inextricably connected with programs building “warfare capacity.” These goals are incompatible. (Research and teaching programs exist at most universities, including Purdue, to explore alternative approaches to national security that do not depend on expanding the nation’s “warfare capacity”).

Second, the occasion for the visit by the Secretary of the Navy to Purdue University was the announcement of a collaborative project to transform the U.S. Navy away from overreliance on fossil fuels. The military and the university will be collaborating to improve the environment and make war-making more efficient.

Third, the Navy/university project is designed to facilitate the Obama Administration goal of projecting more U.S. military power in Asia, to curry the favor of some allies in the region, counter-balance Chinese influence, and prepare for war with the superpower of the future.

Reflecting on these news accounts we see the paradox of the inextricable interconnectedness of education, research, environmentalism, militarism, and the pursuit of U.S. great power hegemony. As a result, progressives must increasingly develop a political program that addresses the crisis of the global environment and the war problem at the same time.