Liberals and the security state

When George Bush shredded civil liberties, he was decried by liberals. When Barack Obama does it, we're told he's protecting our freedom. Deepa Kumar explains.

Barack Obama speaks to troops stationed at Fort Bragg (Jessica M. Kuhn)Barack Obama speaks to troops stationed at Fort Bragg (Jessica M. Kuhn)

CORNEL WEST, on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, reiterated his criticism that President Obama is a "war criminal" for killing innocent people through drone strikes. He went on to make a simple, but rarely heard observation--that if you "have an empire, you're going to have war crimes."

Critical voices like his are an exception in the mainstream. For the most part, establishment liberals have either been silent or have cheered Obama on as he has expanded the national security state. West chastises liberals as "morally bankrupt" for giving Obama a pass for the same things that Bush was criticized for.

The reception for the revelations of the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks is only the most recent illustration of this trend. Rather than criticize the gross abuse of power by the government, a smear campaign was orchestrated first against Snowden and then journalist Glenn Greenwald.

From Mika Brezeznski on MSNBC using, as Greenwald states, "White House talking points" to downplay the significance of the leaks, to David Gregory of NBC asking why Greenwald shouldn't be charged as a criminal, the liberal establishment media and their "experts" faithfully defended the White House. Instead of acting as the "watchdog of the government," the corporate media acted as attack dogs for the government.

The public, however, has responded differently to the ongoing revelations. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe that Snowden is a whistle-blower, as opposed to a "traitor," and in a dramatic reversal, far greater numbers believe that the government has gone too far in violating civil liberties.

The machinery of liberal imperialism and the rhetorical shift orchestrated by the Obama administration is beginning to decay.

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TOWARD THE end of Bush's second term, the credibility of the U.S. had been badly damaged on the world stage. Sections of the political elite had begun to strategize about how to rehabilitate empire's image.

In 2007, a leadership group headed by Madeleine Albright produced a document titled "Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World." The document states that to defeat "violent extremists," military force was necessary but not sufficient, and that the U.S. needed to forge "diplomatic, political, economic and cultural initiatives." In short, both "hard" and "soft" power was needed.

It rejected the Bush-era "clash of civilizations" framework and advised the next president to talk about improving relations with Muslim-majority countries in his or her inaugural speech and reaffirm the U.S.'s "commitment to prohibit all forms of torture."

Obama did exactly that. From his inaugural speech to the speech in Cairo, he echoed these themes emphasizing the positive contributions of Muslims to human history. His administration dropped the term "Global War on Terror" and replaced it with the innocuous "Overseas Contingency Operations," all the while critiquing torture and upholding liberal human rights principles.

Yet liberal rhetoric by itself was not enough. The retreat from Iraq and the Afghan quagmire prompted a shift in imperial thinking from conventional warfare to largely invisible mechanisms of coercion.

Analyzing the 2012 Defense Planning Guidance document in my book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, I argued that the era of large-scale warfare was over, and instead "the new phase of Obama's imperial posture involves re-establishing U.S. hegemony...through multilateral alliances and the use of air strikes, drone attacks, and counterterrorism and Special Operations forces as well as cyber warfare."

Obama launched what has been called a "smarter" war on terror, using the tools developed by the Bush administration. Yet this shift has been kept from the public. However, from Wikileaks on, we have entered a period where whistleblowers and investigative journalists are rendering the emperor's clothes visible.

The prison at Guantánamo Bay became a symbol of Bush's excesses, and yet despite promises to the contrary, it remains open. Obama issued an executive order to close down the notorious CIA "black sites," where torture was rampant. Journalist Anand Gopal, however, revealed that the U.S. continues to maintain several secret prisons in Afghanistan where torture continues. Jeremy Scahill, in his book Dirty Wars, unearthed another such prison in Somalia.

It's hard to say how many more there are in other countries. But these revelations shed light on why the Obama administration has not prosecuted a single Bush administration official for torture. In fact, it has granted immunity to these officials.

When Bush indefinitely detained prisoners stripping them of their habeas corpus rights, he was rightly denounced by liberals. Yet when Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which not only institutionalizes this process, but also expands its use to U.S. citizens, there was little criticism.

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney created a top-secret killing machine out of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which traveled around the world assassinating people at will, without congressional oversight or public discussion. Obama embraced and systematized this.

As Scahill observes, the Obama administration inherited from Bush a set of covert and clandestine programs marked by infighting between various agencies, particularly the CIA and JSOC. Obama would bring in Bush-era officials to create a seamless, integrated and expanded global assassination program.

Obama has dramatically escalated drone strikes around the world; heinously, he also ordered the assassination of U.S. citizens. Without due process, the U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki was executed in Yemen; a few weeks later his teenage son was killed in a "signature" strike.

The IT war has also been relentless. When the Bush administration announced the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program of intrusive data gathering and mining, it was rightly denounced as the first coming of Big Brother. As the ongoing NSA leaks show, under Obama, a program of even greater scope is now a reality.

The Obama administration has also escalated cyber-warfare, using militarized computer viruses to attack computers in Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. Journalist Nick Turse notes in his book, The Changing Face of Empire, that while these efforts were begun under Bush, "President Obama...became the first American commander-in-chief to order sustained cyber attacks designed to cripple another country's infrastructure."

This reconfiguration of empire has been largely kept under wraps in order to maintain Obama's liberal posture. It is therefore not surprising that he has prosecuted whistle blowers at a rate higher than all previous U.S. presidents combined.

Additionally, as McClatchy newspapers revealed, federal employees will be asked to spy on each other and tattle when they identify a potential leaker. Known as the "Insider Threat" program, this will apply not only to security establishment workers but also those in the Department of Agriculture, EPA, etc.

For Obama secrecy is vital since his entire presidency has rested on saying one thing and doing another; on liberal rhetoric and imperial actions. At root, his foreign policy still relies on "keeping Americans safe" from the menacing Islamic terrorist threat.

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AT THE end of the day, as the great historian Richard Hofstradter teaches us in The American Political Tradition, there are very few substantive differences between the main political parties. While they "differ, sometimes bitterly, over current issues...they also share a general framework of ideas." This "range of ideas...is limited by the climate of opinion that sustains their culture."

Creating this "climate of opinion" is the responsibility of brave citizens and legislators. Frank Church, who headed a committee to study government excesses, warned of the dangers of NSA surveillance, stating that it could "make tyranny total in America." On the FBI's COINTELPRO, used to spy on 1960s activists, including the pacifist Martin Luther King, the Church report stated that the "techniques used [are] intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity." The result was a curtailment of government spying.

Today, it is our responsibility to shift the culture in the U.S. to bring an end not only to surveillance, but also empire and the national security state.

First published at Aljazeera.com.