In a revealing tweet last October, BBC diplomatic correspondent, Bridget Kendall, commented acerbically on a press conference given by Russian president Vladimir Putin:
‘… And he can’t resist bragging about his own experience going up in fighter jet’
We thought aloud on Twitter that we couldn’t recall any BBC journalist accusing Obama of ‘bragging’ about anything.
One of our Twitter followers tried to help us out:
‘If you can find a series of photo-op images of Obama wrestling wild animals shirtless, you might have a point’
It’s true that Putin likes to portray himself as a bare-chested, judo wrestling, fighter pilot. But then Thatcher was famously filmed clinging to the commander’s cupola of a charging tank with a Union Jack fluttering at her side. Declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq from an aircraft carrier, George Bush made a grandiose landing in a military jet with ‘George W. Bush – Commander-In-Chief’ emblazoned on the plane’s nose.
Is the current US president different? Is it just that he keeps his shirt on and is above bragging?
In November 2013, the Washington Times reported that Obama had been overheard ‘bragging to administration aides about his ability to kill people with drones’. The president’s exact words:
‘[I’m] really good at killing people.’
While the US was bringing disaster to Libya in 2011, Obama bragged:
‘Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.’
Citing journalist Seymour Hersh and others, Gareth Porter has supplied a different version of events:
‘When the Obama administration began its effort to overthrow Gaddafi, it did not call publicly for regime change and instead asserted that it was merely seeking to avert mass killings that administration officials had suggested might approach genocidal levels. But the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) , which had been given the lead role in assessing the situation in Libya, found no evidence to support such fears and concluded that it was based on nothing more than “speculative arguments”.’
Indeed, not only was Obama not motivated to avert mass killing, as so many corporate journalists have claimed, he pursued illegal regime change against the advice of his most senior military advisers:
‘The JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] warned that overthrowing the Gaddafi regime would serve no US security interest, but would instead open the way for forces aligned with al-Qaeda to take over the country. After the Obama administration went ahead with a NATO air assault against the Gaddafi regime the US military sought to head off the destruction of the entire Libyan government…
‘But the State Department refused any negotiation with Gaddafi on the [JCS] proposal. Immediately after hearing that Gaddafi had been captured by rebel forces and killed, Clinton famously joked in a television interview, “We came, we saw, he died” and laughed.
‘By then the administration was already embarked on yet another regime change policy in Syria.’
The results of this regime change policy, in both Libya and Syria, have been simply catastrophic.
This month, in his final State of the Union address, Obama took his braggadocio to another level:
‘Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation attacks us directly or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.’
Sounding like a left parody of imperial power, Obama said:
‘If you doubt America’s commitment – or mine – to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden.’
Justice is a warm gun and a double head tap.
If Putin bragged about being ‘good at killing people’, of ruining whole countries, and paraded extrajudicial killing as ‘justice’, the likes of Bridget Kendall would denounce him as a sociopath. This never happens because Obama and the Official Enemy are perceived through two separate media lenses – one, dark and damning, for ‘them’; the other, rose-tinted and admiring, for ‘us’.
Thus, in a response to his latest speech in the Guardian, Lucia Graves somehow found the president’s rhetoric ‘lofty and seemingly above the fray’. Obama ‘defined himself more abstractly as against fear’. American fear, that is – not the fear of nations facing American ‘justice’ and the associated ‘path to ruin’.
At the extreme end of the media ‘spectrum’, while offering mild criticism, Guardian leftist Owen Jones linked to Obama’s State of the Union speech, commenting:
‘Funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician, he is the ultimate ambassador for US power.’
Jones claims he intended to represent the views of others with these opening comments. But later in the same piece he wrote:
‘None of this is to scapegoat Obama. Even the most well-intentioned president will struggle against a system described last year by Princeton researchers as an “oligarchy”…’
Obama, as ever, is to be viewed as ‘well-intentioned’.
By contrast, Jones wrote a piece this week under the title: ‘Putin is a human rights abusing oligarch. The British left must speak out.’ This piece began rather differently:
‘A rightwing authoritarian leader who attacks civil liberties, stigmatises lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, indulges in chauvinistic nationalism, is in bed with rapacious oligarchs, and who is admired by the European and American hard right. Leftwing opposition to Vladimir Putin should be, well, kind of an obvious starting point.’
Russia ‘is ruled by a human rights abusing, expansionist, oligarchic regime.’ Jones has surely never referred to the corporate oligarchy that runs the US as a ‘regime’. Three-time US presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, on the other hand, has said:
‘We have a two-party dictatorship in this country. Let’s face it. And it is a dictatorship in thralldom to giant corporations.’ (Nader, interview with The Real News Network, November 4, 2008)
The Western political and corporate media establishment simply has too much invested in Obama’s status as a ‘Good Guy’ for him to be subject to liberal sneers. The public has to support his wars, and his wars have to be sold as ‘humanitarian interventions’ driven by ‘our’ altruistic ‘responsibility to protect’. So his bragging remains invisible to British liberals. The corporate journalist being, after all, a master of the art of ‘denying a knowledge he would have, if he only wanted to have it’. (Erich Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, p.94)
This doesn’t mean Obama can’t be criticised. It’s fine to criticise him for being too passive, pacifist; too humble in ‘leading’ the ‘free world’. In a Guardian piece last October titled, ‘Syria’s horror shows the tragic price of western inaction,’ Natalie Nougayrède wrote:
‘There are many actors responsible for the depth of Syria’s tragedy. It is impossible to lay all the blame on Obama. But Frederic Hof [former special adviser on Syria to the US regime] is a rare voice coming from within that administration who says that inaction has had a higher cost than action would have had.’
Paul Mason argued similarly this month in in the Guardian that Obama ‘stood aloof from the Syrian conflict’.
In the aftermath of the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks, The Times noted Obama’s ‘prolonged inaction against President Assad in Syria’. (Leader, ‘Nous Sommes Tous Français,’ The Times, November 16, 2016)
The Sun also lamented Obama’s ‘incredible complacency’ and ‘catastrophic failure to lead the western world.’
In September 2014, a Guardian leader asked of ‘Obama’s plan to contain Isis’:
‘Is doing nothing really an option? Western countries have averted their eyes in the past. Let it just burn out, said the critics of intervention in former Yugoslavia. We should have paid more heed, said the critics of inaction in Rwanda.
‘Why us, Americans in particular may ask, in the case now of Iraq and Syria?’
The Guardian claimed that the US was not part of a conflict it had merely been trying to ‘influence’:
‘Is America, which is after all also one of the outside powers seeking to influence the conflict’s outcome, an ideal arbiter? Hardly, but it is the only one available.’
By contrast, Seymour Hersh reported that, in 2013, ‘the CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, via Turkey, had been underway for more than a year (it started sometime after Gaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011)’.
Hersh added: ‘although many in the American intelligence community were aware that the Syrian opposition was dominated by extremists the CIA-sponsored weapons kept coming, presenting a continuing problem for Assad’s army’.
The Irish Times supplied some detail: ‘the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the CIA takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles’.
Hersh reported an ‘active effort’ made ‘by the US military to mitigate Obama administration regime change policies’ in Libya and Syria. A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs told Hersh:
‘The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists.’
Hersh cited Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and member of the House Armed Services Committee:
‘The US and the CIA should stop this illegal and counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad and should stay focused on fighting against… the Islamic extremist groups.’
In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins commented on the rationale behind UK support for US-led ‘interventions’ in Iraq and Libya:
‘These were undertaken largely to honour Britain’s alliance with a recklessly neo-imperial America. But the reason given in each case was “humanitarian”. Given the lack of military threat or other justification, humanity was all there was.’
‘Humanity’ was all there was. And so, when it comes to Obama, a ‘humanitarian’ is all we are allowed to see – well-intentioned, keen to avoid violence, even as he ruins whole countries.
The change from George W. Bush is real but dismal – Obama’s advisors learned the lesson that US credibility and security are not best served by being seen to lead efforts to overthrow governments. Others – France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – now assume that role for the cameras while the world’s leading rogue state continues to lead behind the scenes.