The narrative of the historic presidency of Barak Obama is a hotly contested one. What is different, “audacious,” or status quo about this presidency is daily debated by pundits of all stripes. This president, like those before him, is a polarizing figure, yet the country seems intent on uncovering the historical significance of the presidency in the present tense. Generally speaking, many on the Left are concerned with the president being chronicled in the U.S. lexicon as significant, whereas many on the Right insist that he is something of a red herring, a figure whom starry-eyed liberals are helpless to not be persuaded by.
In this three-part interview, the historian and cultural critic Eugene McCarraher helps us sort out this complex presidency. In part one of the interview, McCarraher talks about some salient themes emerging in the 2000s, including the credulity of the U.S. populace, Christian conservatism, the spectacle of “Obamarama,” and the Tiger Woods scandal as underwhelming distraction. Here, in part two of the interview, McCarraher talks about the “Obama Doctrine,” Niebuhrian realism, and the usefulness of maps.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Last month President Obama gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, where he talked about not just peace but war. Some pundits are saying this is our first clear look at the so-called “Obama doctrine.” Looking back just one year ago, Obama’s campaign leveraged words like hope and change in their campaign; they argued that we can believe and hope in this change, change he would usher in with his leadership. What do you make of Obama’s speech? Are there notable contrasts you see with the Bush doctrine and what change do you see in regards to his speech?
Eugene McCarraher (EM): The “Obama Doctrine” is the Bush Doctrine is the Clinton Doctrine is the Reagan Doctrine is the Carter—you get the point. Despite all the changes in rhetorical style over the years, there’s been an essential continuity in U. S. foreign policy, not only since 1945, but even since 1917, and arguably, since 1898: make the world safe for corporate capitalist expansion.
If there is such a thing as the Obama Doctrine, it’s different in tone, not in objective, from the doxology of American global hegemony that first appeared in benevolently racist form during the annexation debates after the Spanish-American War; that achieved its haughtiest homiletic apogee in Wilsonian internationalism; and that morphed into neoliberal realpolitik in the “National Security Strategy of the United States,” published by the Bush Administration in late 2002. (It’s often considered a neoconservative document, but I don’t see much difference between neoconservatism and neoliberalism.) As far as I can see, Obama’s foreign policy hasn’t departed significantly, save in its cosmetic features, from the larger American imperial trajectory of the last century.
Obama’s Nobel speech was the one example of audacity he’s actually provided over the last year. It’s indisputably audacious for the Chief Executive of the only contemporary empire, not to accept the peace prize with bloodied hands—that’s been done by previous recipients, from Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Kissinger—but to turn the occasion into a defense of U. S. imperial policy. It’s absolutely breathtaking. And what’s more, the assembled dignitaries and celebrities just sat there, starstruck, and let him get away with it. That tells you, not only that Europeans can be just as infatuated with warmongers as Americans are—imagine what the reaction to the speech would have been if George W. Bush had delivered it—but that European governments really are still quite deferential to the geopolitical interests of the American Empire.
In point of sentiment and argument, Obama’s Nobel oration was very similar to the West Point speech he’d given a week earlier; in fact, he lifted some passages from the West Point talk and inserted them, almost verbatim, into the Oslo address. They’re both chock full of the Niebuhrian platitudes we’ve come to expect as camouflage for imperial ambition. If there’s anything new about this Obama Doctrine, it’s that the United States will now feel a bit worse when it imposes its will on the powerless of the earth. When we have to bomb a village or support a tyrant, we’ll shed a tear about the Tragedy of It All. Unlike the Romans or the Spanish or the British, we’re the imperialists who feel your pain.
I have to say that the Cairo speech in early June was the most hopeful moment. Obama said some pretty remarkable things that day. He actually used the word colonialism; he lauded Islam’s contributions to civilization; he acknowledged that the United States overthrew the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953—the first time that I can recall that a U. S. president has ever admitted the nation’s complicity in the subversion of a legitimate government. He even insisted that Israel had to respect both the rights of its Palestinian citizens and the legitimacy of any future Palestinian state.
But, as with everything else about Obama, the eloquence acts as a fog to obscure the persistence of imperial and corporate power. If you put aside the Cairo and Nobel speeches and just look at what Obama has actually done and is doing—something liberals in particular have been studious about avoiding, on this and a host of other issues—he’s marching perfectly in step with the grand tradition of the imperial presidency. Even if you leave Afghanistan out of the picture, it’s clear that Obama is fully committed to the maintenance of America’s global hegemony.
On second thought, let’s put Afghanistan in the picture. His escalation of the war there discredits a standard liberal canard about him: “Well, he’s better than Bush.” No—as far as Afghanistan is concerned, he is now officially worse than Bush. On top of that, as Joe Wilson might helpfully point out, Obama lied in his West Point speech about the reasons he’s prosecuting the war. Yes, lied—he’s far too smart a guy to believe the nonsense he served up for the cadets, some of whom, sad to say, may well be the first sacrificial victims of the Obama Doctrine. Few people outside the Beltway political and media elite really believe that the Taliban, or even al-Qaeda, pose a threat to U. S. security. And to his credit, Obama didn’t contend that we’re there to build schools or promote feminism for Afghan women, the kind of pseudo-Enlightenment arguments for imperialism favored by imperial ideologues like Thomas Friedman. He said quite straightforwardly that we were fighting for “vital national interests,” about that, he didn’t deceive them, and that’s arguably a turn for the better. Obama lied because he misidentified the nature of that national interest. Despite the vehemence with which it will be denied by politicians, pundits, and embedded intellectuals, the ongoing invasion of Afghanistan is about ensuring the security of Western oil supplies and countering the influence in central Asia of Iran, China, and Russia. At the risk of simplification, all you have to do is look at a map.
Obama’s commitment to the Empire is manifest elsewhere. He’s continued and even intensified the undeclared war in Pakistan that we’ve been waging since early 2007, relying even more heavily on drone missile attacks, many of which are carried out, I might add, by none other than Blackwater, the mercenary war criminals the Obama Administration has shielded from regulation by the Iraqi government. As for Iraq, although Obama has promised to withdraw all combat forces by the end of 2011, it’s hard to believe that the United States is simply going to walk away from a country so rich in oil and so studded with military bases—5 enormous ones, and over 230 smaller installations.
What’s more, there’s a lot of evidence indicating that once regular combat soldiers leave Iraq, they’ll be increasingly replaced by private military contractors. On this score, what we may see during the Obama years—regardless of whether there are four or eight of them—is an increased reliance on mercenaries to enforce the dictates of the imperial metropole. It isn’t simply that the empire is becoming expensive. It’s that the imperial populace refuses to pay the bills, in money and bodies, for the empire they need to supply them with their goodies. The Romans did the same thing near the end.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—still the rub for millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world—Obama has been thoroughly subservient to the Israel lobby here at home. He hasn’t done anything to curb, let alone end, the vicious and criminal behavior of the Israeli government in Gaza. Aside from the Israel lobby, the reason is simple: however brutal and undemocratic Israel really is, it serves as our main stick in the eye of Arabs who might get funny ideas about wandering off the imperial reservation.
Travel across the globe to Latin America, and the same imperial logic prevails. When the left-wing Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup late last June, the Obama administration was silent. Later, it endorsed the fraudulent election that ratified the coup and installed a right-wing fait accompli. Go south to Colombia, where the administration cut a deal in late October with President Álvaro Uribe for seven expanded military bases. A map might be handy here as well: Colombia has a long, contentious border with Venezuela, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on the enmity the U. S. government bears toward Hugo Chavez.
Perhaps most pointedly, Obama’s budget for the 2010 fiscal year increased military spending by almost 5 percent in real terms—and that’s not counting the additional money he’ll have to commit to the escalated conflict in Afghanistan. And the military budget represents, of course, the convergence of the domestic and foreign components of the imperial corporate state. Once again, meet the new boss.
TOJ: David Brooks of the New York Times recently argued that Obama is reviving a Christian realism, a position associated with Reinhold Niebuhr that is also known as cold war liberalism. Brooks explained that the Christian realist fights evil as a confessing agent, “So as you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting.” He also quotes George F. Kennan: “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”1
This is a two-part question: do you generally agree with Brook’s assessment that Obama is a Christian realist? And, given that we are now forty years past the heyday of cold war liberalism, I’m concerned that we need a more robust self-awareness besides the abstract awareness that darkness lurks in the depths of our psyches. Where must we, the United States, improve our self-understanding to avoid being lulled into the myth that we are innocent?
EM: Not to be difficult or evasive, but it all depends on what you mean by “Christian realist”—I don’t trust David Brooks to be of much help understanding anything. I would contend that Christianity is realism: we know that the world is a place of love and abundance, and we know that sin, understood as perversion, does not alter that fundamental reality. Thus, living by the gospel is not idealism, but living—often with great difficulty—in harmony with reality.
But alas, we must defer to history and accept “Christian realism” in its common, which is to say Niebuhrian, connotation. By that standard, Obama, as his Nobel speech made quite clear, is a Christian realist, though it does him little or no credit, in my view. As I said earlier, the audacity of that address was to turn the awarding of a peace prize into a homiletic occasion to plump for the necessity of war. Obama knew all along that he’d escalate the war in Afghanistan; he knew that he’d have to square this with the image he projected in Cairo of an America more willing to admit mistakes and to work multilaterally. The Nobel speech was Obama’s grandest ideological statement to date, a reassertion of American imperial hegemony in somber but unmistakable tones. He sounded all the standard Niebuhrian canards: nation-states can’t be expected to abide by the same moral rules as individuals; great moral leaders such as King and Gandhi never had to face the challenges—or “realities”—that political leaders such as Obama have to face; Hitler and lesser monsters couldn’t have been defeated by nonviolence, only by bloodshed. It’s now a tradition that saying such things lends gravitas, indicates Responsibility and Maturity, bestows the mantle of Seriousness. Pacifism, for lack of a better word, is dismissed as a sign of immaturity and unrealism, if not outright cowardice.
All three of those canards deserve a response. The first one is, in a sense, correct; nation-states can’t act like individuals. But as the great A. J. Muste once objected, doesn’t that say something pretty awful about nation-states? The canard assumes that the nation-state is the only legitimate political identity, which is a very debatable assertion.
As for King and Gandhi not having the responsibilities of a state official, well, first, refer back to Muste, and second, what’s that got to do with anything?
And as for what’s often considered the KO punch to nonviolence—hey, what about Hitler?—I think we need to point out that no one ever attempted a concerted nonviolent resistance to Hitler in Germany, certainly not the German churches, Protestant or Catholic. God only knows how the history of the world would have been different if there had been a nonviolent movement against German fascism. One of the few heartening chapters in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem describes the nonviolent resistance of the Danes to Nazi occupation and their largely successful effort to protect Danish Jews from the Judeocide.2 So I think it’s eminently reasonable to think that nonviolence could have prevented or brought down the Nazi government.
The most difficult problem with nonviolence is not only that it requires the willingness to suffer in patience and hope, but that, in my view, it entails acceptance of some responsibility for the suffering and death one’s nonviolence may well enable. Wanting to avoid pain and death is certainly understandable—think of Jesus praying for a way out in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s not ignoble to not want to suffer or die. But sometimes, suffering and death are going to be unavoidable, no matter what you do. I think that goes a long way toward meeting the objection that pacifists don’t want to acknowledge any responsibility for the wrongs permitted by the avoidance of violent interdiction. I say “a long way” because I have to admit that I’m still uneasy on this point—would practitioners of nonviolence really accept responsibility for Auschwitz or Buchenwald?
I discussed Christian realism at some length in my book Christian Critics, so I’ll restate and perhaps embellish my objections to it here.f In my view, the fundamental problem with Christian realism isn’t the Christian part, but the realism part. Whoever defines reality holds the most crucial power one can have. If that reality is one of love and abundance—that is, reality as it’s defined, or should be defined, by the community called to Christ—then your politics will follow from that ontological foundation. If that reality is one of scarcity and strife—that is, reality as it’s always defined by nation-states and corporations—then your politics will follow from that ontological foundation. So because Christians reside in nation-states, they have dual citizenships, one in a global, cosmopolitan community, the other in a limited, national community. The mythology of the nation-state is that those two citizenships are completely compatible, if not identical, and that if one seems to conflict with the other, the national identity must prevail. The gospel has no such illusions: Christians can and must obey laws that do not harm faith and morals, but if those laws do such harm, they must not be obeyed. The problem then becomes, what practices of the nation-state harm faith and morals? That can be an extremely difficult question to answer, to say the least, and it dovetails with another question: is warfare a practice that harms faith and morals? Not the first, but the historically most determinative answer, was Augustine’s: yes, Christians can fight “just” wars. But I’ve never been satisfied with Augustine’s answer, in part because I don’t think he argues so much as he asserts it in the City of God, and in part because he defines the problem of war precisely in the terms of imperial self-protection and expansion that he should have been challenging.4
In short, by defining the problem of war in terms he borrowed from Roman imperial culture, Augustine was the model for what Niebuhr and later Christian realists would do: accept the terms of the nation-state for what counts as realistic. Once you let the nation-state, whose government is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, define the terms of political and economic reality, you’ve ceded the cognitive terrain to its corporate, bureaucratic, and military elites. The problem with Christian “realism,” then, is that it offers just too beguiling a deference to the nightmares and fantasies of politicians, bankers, generals, and pundits. Christian realism has served, on the whole, as one of the more sad-sack imperial ideologies, the kind of thing imperial Christians feel they have to say to the world when the “necessities” of power “compel” them to bankroll tyrants, assassinate insurgents, or kill innocent people. At its best, it can and has mitigated violence; as its worst, it corrupts the good news of redemption into the very bad news of death.
Not that it would help him at all—he’d probably have to resign if he took it seriously—but I’d recommend that Obama read, not Niebuhr or Augustine, but Origen, whose Contra Celsum is a magnificent piece of polemic and exposition.5 Celsus was one of the Roman Empire’s embedded intellectuals, shaking his head and furrowing his brow over antiquity’s version of the Culture Wars. These Christians, the old fogey complained, they blaspheme the traditional deities, they dishonor our imperial past, they refuse to fight in the legions that protect them.6 Origen dissected Celsus’s arguments with exquisite forensic skill. But the upshot was simple: we won’t fight in your wars or sacrifice to your gods because we don’t accept your account of reality. The same defiance animated critics of Niebuhr such as A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan; they, too, should be on Obama’s reading list. Like I said, Obama would have to hand in his resignation if he took Origen to heart, but he’d save his soul, and perhaps those of at least a few other people. Stranger things have happened.
There’s another, even more historically inflected problem here, and it restates your point about Americans’ need for sharper self-understanding. Christian realism assumes a very acute and profound consciousness by a people, not just individuals, of its capacity for sin. It demands a talent for self-scrutiny and irony that would, presumably, curb a people’s inclinations to vengeance, malice, and cruelty in the conduct of realpolitik or warfare. No people is good at this kind of thing, but it’s especially difficult when, like Americans, you’re told that you’ve been charged by God or Fate or History with some mission to spread Freedom and Prosperity around the world. Bush did this sort of thing, and people either bowed or recoiled. When Obama did it at West Point, invoking the same narrative of American exceptionalism we’ve heard since the Puritan errand into the wilderness, few if any people objected. As I said before, the Nobel speech can’t be properly understood without reference to the West Point oration. As a matter of history, the Christian realism that Obama invoked in Oslo is tied inextricably to the American sense of providential anointment, the sense of election that has sanctioned genocide, imperialism, and tyranny. It’s disgraceful that Obama put his seal of approval on that when he retold the exceptionalist tale at West Point: “We have never sought to dominate,” “Our nation was founded in resistance to tyranny,” et cetera.7 He didn’t dare invoke that mythology in Oslo—the Europeans there would surely have snorted loudly if he had. What’s really disappointing about Obama’s recitation of the exceptionalist narrative is that he’s too damned smart to believe it. Here’s the smartest guy we’ve had in the White House since Woodrow Wilson, a product, as I’ve said, of post-sixties academic culture, and still he peddles this nonsense. Clearly, the repression if not the complete erasure of one’s historical memory is mandatory for entrance into the power elite.
I don’t know what a lot of Americans would make of their country’s past, present, and future if we lost that conviction of divine anointment, that is, if we awakened from our providentialist daydream and realized that, no, we’re not God’s Country, that God has no country, that the whole point of the gospel is that all lands and peoples require and have God’s love and mercy. We’d have to concede that a lot of our past really was the violent and rapacious nightmare for non-white people that Liberal College Professors tell us it was. We’d have to acknowledge that the Puritans really were bastards and that their treatment of Indians—similar, I might add, to their treatment of the Irish—set the history of this country on a virulently expansionist path, one that we later called “Manifest Destiny,” “the American Century,” and now “globalization.” We’d have to admit that the history of race in this country has been bound up with that providentialist conceit and that white people thought—some still think—that slavery was God’s redemptive tutelage in Christianity for Africans, who should have been properly thankful. (You can hear echoes of this in arguments about sweatshops: hey, those people are better off than they used to be. They should thank us for the opportunity to lace our sneakers.) Can you imagine most Americans really taking all of this to heart? I can’t, not for now. It would require and constitute such a revolution in the American character that the country would be transformed.
Please read Part I of our interview with Eugene McCarraher here.
1. David Brooks,“Obama’s Christian Realism,” New York Times, Opinion section, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/opinion/15brooks.html.
2. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, NY: Penguin Classics,  2006).
3. Eugene McCarraher, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).
4. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York, NY: Penguin Classics,  2003).
5. Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, [248 CE] 1980).
6. I hear Gilbert Meilaender again: “Oh, I don’t think we have any reason to think we’re being lied to.” See Part I of the interview, paragraph 11: https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=924.