Strange allies in the drive for war

September 16, 2013

Many liberal boosters of the Obama administration seem to support the president under any circumstance--including, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, shilling for war.

IN THE last several weeks, President Barack Obama has struggled mightily to put together a "coalition of the willing" to launch air strikes against Syria, but in the face of war-weary populations, one world leader after another has opted to leave Obama on his own to carry out U.S. war plans.

The strident and partisan political fault lines within the U.S. have remained in place as Republicans--usually in the "drop bombs now, ask questions later" camp--seek out new ways to oppose Obama. Now they are challenging the process by which Obama is trying to lead the nation into a new war--not the notion that the U.S. has any business beginning a war with another nation in the first place.

In fact, the U.S. public broadly opposes air strikes against Syria, complicating Obama's task of selling yet another war in the Middle East. Obama has pulled out all of the stops--even booking a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

For two years, Obama refused to meet with the CBC for fear that it would appear as if he was giving preferential treatment to African Americans. But in the scramble to whip up pro-war sentiment, Obama and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who is also African American, met CBC member to try to garner their votes for missile strikes on Syria.

Van Jones
Van Jones

This has left the president isolated, but not alone. The Obama administration has been able to find some allies in unexpected places in his quest to sell the war. There are a surprising number of African American liberals who, while they may have not completely jumped on board the air-strike bandwagon, are, in effect, warming up the engine and assisting the administration to make its case for war.

Where there has not been direct support, the absence of opposition and the silence of African American leaders--including many who recently organized the March on Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of 1963 event, has spoken volumes.

BEFORE OBAMA had even made his pitch for air strikes, former adviser Van Jones shamefully declared on CNN that the U.S. should initiate "air strikes this week." In a more restrained moment before being for the war, Jones advocated "exhaust all peaceful options before any bombs start falling."

MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry has used her program as a staging ground to gather support for Obama's war. On one program, she differentiated between going to war and the "narrow" use of air strikes, while praising the president for asking for Congress' permission to launch air strikes. Harris-Perry convened a panel of largely uncritical guests who only questioned the parameters of an American attack, not the premise of it. Harris-Perry not only didn't not come out against the war, but she instead tried to establish why war would be justified.

Peniel Joseph, a historian, columnist for The Root and author of the impressive and widely read Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour about the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, came out against intervention in Syria, but for confusing reasons. Joseph critiqued the Obama administration for the lack of a "muscular and effective foreign policy strategy that stops short of regime change, but promotes human rights and the broader interests of America."

Joseph goes on to champion a "judicious" use of U.S. military power with the nonsensical platitude that "America's enormous financial and military power offers the world a beacon of hope and inspiration and can, when deployed judiciously, be an incredibly effective tool for the promotion of human rights, health care, women's equality and democracy."

What? This is a startling rendering of history from a historian of the postwar Black Freedom Movement. While this is not a call for intervention or air strikes, positioning the U.S. military as a "beacon of hope" in the world helps provide justification for intervention if it comes to pass.

The Grio, the Internet clearinghouse for African American news, has largely published articles that either directly support intervention or carefully explain that, if the Obama administration were to intervene, it will be completely different from Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq. In an article titled "Five Reasons Why Syria is not Obama's Iraq," number five simply declares, "Obama is not George W. Bush." Readers are then assured, "Obama has shown himself as president to be calculated and deliberate," unlike the impulsive and war-mongering Bush.

Finally, NAACP President Ben Jealous and National Action Network president Al Sharpton, both of whom organized last month's March on Washington, have yet to come out to oppose Obama's threats of war. Black leaders are not required to oppose American wars--though Sharpton opposed the Iraq War and declared that he opposed "unprovoked military action" by the United States.

It is hard to believe that if this same military action were being threatened by a Republican administration that Jealous, Sharpton and other liberal Black leaders would not be robustly opposing the promise of war, especially at a time when the U.S. is reeling from recession, record levels of poverty and a crumbling infrastructure.

IN ESSENCE, Obama's Black liberal supporters are akin to Obama's Republican detractors. Among conservatives, Obama can do no right, but among Obama's liberal admirers, the president can do no wrong. Many of these liberal boosters of the Obama administration support the president under any circumstances--including, it now seems, shilling for war.

They are so concerned with enhancing their own proximity to the power and privileges radiating from the White House that they make excuses for the president at every opportunity--or they viciously attack Obama's critics, like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, who were subjected to a barrage of personal insults and haranguing for daring to discuss the president's miserable record on racial and economic inequality.

The Black liberal establishment's support of Obama, even as he clamors for missile strikes, is not just a case of "selling out," but represents on a grand scale the complete lack of independence they have from the Obama administration. In fact, the state of Black America alone has generally been a persuasive case against the American empire's wars.

Those conditions have seen precious little improvement over the decades and remain a searing indictment of American capitalism. Millions of Black children languish in poverty, high unemployment plagues Black urban communities, and the public infrastructure in cities across the country has been stripped to the bone. Meanwhile, federal and state governments insist that they are incapable of addressing the crisis due to "budgetary constraints."

African American liberalism has historically found itself thrust into political activity because of the conditions in Black communities. The need to maintain a connection with and a relevance to the vast majority of African Americans who are working class and poor has compelled Black liberalism to preserve its commitment to a "Black agenda," in which protests and activism have played important roles. But it has also been confounded by its belief in American democracy and the "American Dream," while simultaneously having to account for the inaccessibility of both to the mass of Black people.

The articulation and advocacy of this Black agenda has been made even more complicated in the post-segregation era during which political discourse has been steadily reduced to the single vector of "personal responsibility" and away from the more expansive framework of "structural inequality."

Moreover, the lack of sustained activist movements to address conditions in Black communities has magnified the sense that electoral politics is the only "realistic" means by which to advance social change. Thus, the election of a Black president who is a Democrat represents the culmination of Black liberalism's political objectives, making it difficult to then criticize the president, let alone place actual demands on the Obama administration.

Finally, the rise of a Black political and economic elite--another significant change since the Civil Rights era--has perpetuated an illusion that the system can work "for those willing to try."

This is not only an argument advanced by the right, but also widely accepted among Black liberals. They, of course, challenge the problem of unequal access and opportunity to achieving various aspects of "the dream," but they accept the premise that such a dream exists and that it's attainable. A combination of all these factors has facilitated the continued rightward drift of Black politics in the Obama era.

BLACK LIBERALS feel enormous pressure to defend the Obama administration, even when Obama recklessly charges forward with threats of bombing Syria. Apparently, the desire to stay in the good graces of Black political power has meant that people who know better have, by their silence, become complicit in the administration's drive to war.

Instead, they should invoke America's long record of propping up dictators, oppression and exploitation around the world as the basis for questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. as an arbiter of justice and democracy today. They should highlight the horrific conditions facing Black America today to challenge the notion that the United States has any moral authority to set international standards for human and civil rights when it cannot maintain the most basic of these standards at home.

We have prisoners starving themselves to get out from under the torturous conditions of solitary confinement. We have prisoners across the South who continue to suffer the inhumanity of capital punishment because they are poor and Black or Brown. We have a Congress engaged in a surreal debate about cutting food stamps for a population suffering from joblessness, a housing crisis and general economic insecurity.

And on the question of war specifically, you cannot advocate for Black liberation at home and the incineration of Brown people abroad. You cannot chastise young Black men and women for violence in their communities, while you simultaneously champion the U.S. blowing up buildings and bodies in Syria.

Just weeks ago, many of the same people paving Obama's road to war with the complicity of lies, half-truths and silence--all in an effort to rally the Black public to the side of the Black president--were celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. While they invoked the memory of King's "Dream," much less was said about King's principled opposition to the Vietnam War.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling The New Jim Crow, bravely stepped forward to do what others have been so reluctant to do thus far, suggesting that we must look beyond a system that makes beggars out of people and instead imagine and fight for a world actually worth living in. She wrote:

In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after the march. In the years following the march, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars for justice. Instead, he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality everywhere in the country. Dr. King said that nothing less than "a radical restructuring of society" could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. And he was right.

Alexander provides hope and vision for what a new Black politics could look like, and the actions of several well known African American liberals over the last several weeks regarding their blind support for Obama shows that it is desperately needed--now more than ever.

Further Reading

From the archives