Dec 14, 2009

Empire lite

Obama is acutely aware of the deep irony in his selection as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Many weeks after the announcement that Barack Obama was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first black American president was formally honoured in an expectedly grand ceremony in Stockholm. There is very little that remains to be said about the tragi-comedy that is the awarding of the world's most conspicuous peace prize to a man who has just ordered the deployment of 30,000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan. What I cannot help but comment on are the remarks made by the ex-candidate of hope in his acceptance speech.

Obama is an intelligent man (quite unlike his predecessor) and is acutely aware of the deep irony in his selection as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize having done nothing for peace, and in fact being commander-in-chief of a military machine that is waging two of the costliest and bloodiest wars in the recent history of the world. He thus felt it necessary to explain in his acceptance speech why he was in fact presiding over these wars and how they were actually contributing to the public interest.

And therein lies the rub. Obama the intelligent and well-versed president must know that his eloquence is starting to get boring. He insisted that a case can be made for 'morally justified' wars; have a multitude of American presidents, British prime ministers, Mughal and Ottoman wazirs, Roman patriarchs, and many other rulers of the world, not argued in exactly the same way that the wars they waged were 'morally justifiable'?

Since time immemorial, imperialist adventures have been explained in epic, ideological terms. The Great Roman Empire claimed that it was acting on behalf of civilised peoples; in its later incarnation it was the deliverer of God's will on earth. Not much changed as humanity entered the modern epoch; the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and ultimately the British conquerors that shaped what is today's capitalist world-system were all convinced that they represented a higher level of civilisation, more or less explained by the refinement of their spiritual values.

The United States has followed in the glorious footsteps of all of these great empires. It too has consistently invoked binaries of civilised-uncivilised, good-evil and moral-immoral. It wouldn't reflect so badly on Barack Obama if his language was similar only to James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, or even Woodrow Wilson. Unfortunately for the president, his rhetoric is scarcely distinguishable from that of George W. Bush.

Obama talked about how Iran and North Korea could not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons (while explicitly maintaining that none has a right to dispute America's right to keep nukes), how he would not tolerate any threat to the security of the American people. All said in much more flowery language than Bush was ever capable of doing, but fundamentally no different from Bush nonetheless. Most students of imperial history never expected too much to change with Obama's coming to power, and so it is coming to pass.

I think what is more insidious about 21st century Empire compared to those that preceded it is that men like Barack Obama are its point-men. While the fact that a black man has risen to the presidency of the United States is a major achievement for people of colour around the world, it should not be allowed to hide the reality that, in general, people of colour are discriminated against, their labour exploited, their resources looted and their children denied opportunities. While Barack Obama becoming president can be attributed to the struggle of black people, the way his image will be used to gloss over the widespread inequality in America is a testament to the sophistication of the ideologues of Empire and the global capitalist system.

Obama, of course, has never been a radical committed to the overhaul of capitalism or freedom of all peoples from imperialism. Figures such as Che Guevara have been completely co-opted by multinational corporations, an indicator of just how cynical profiteers can be (given that Che is a symbol of the international struggle against capitalism and imperialism). The point is simply to note that Obama is smart enough to know how mass propaganda distorts history and creates new myths. But his acceptance speech indicates that he is willing to play his part in reinforcing rather than debunking such myths.

Having said this it is important for outside observers to recognise just how much right-wing anti-Obama propaganda is doing the rounds within the US. Each of his appointments is scrutinised and faithful establishment outfits such as FOX News go out of their way to portray Obama as an atheistic communist. For those of us on the receiving end of the Empire it is amazing to think that Obama can be considered a threat by the American establishment. But this is perhaps why Obama (not unlike the Pakistan People's Party in our case) often feels that he must prove himself to be more loyal than the king.

In the final analysis, history will recount that a wartime president of the United States was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. For all of his attempts to counterbalance the interests of the pro-war lobby with those of his person and party by announcing withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2011, the wartime president will never be an advocate for genuine peace. The troops of his great United States of America continue to occupy more than 150 military bases around the world, and they will remain in Afghanistan long beyond 2011.

One of the most vilified men of the 20th century, Fidel Castro, has noted that Bolivian President Evo Morales – a poor, non-white cocoa farmer in one of the most unequal and racist societies in the world who, after becoming president, has taken on the Bolivian ruling class and truly advanced the cause of peace – will never be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because he is not the president of the United States. And he is right. Morales will never wage morally justified wars, or enforce sanctions against Iran or North Korea. Morales does not defend the Empire, he chooses to fight against it. If I had a peace prize to hand out, I, like Fidel, would give it to Morales.

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