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Don’t betray us, Barack — end the empire

The film director Oliver Stone and the historian Peter Kuznick on how the US president can learn fro

"Suddenly, a season of peace seems to be warming the world," the New York Times exulted on the last day of July 1988. Protracted and bloody wars were ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua, and between Iran and Iraq. But the most dramatic development was still to come.

In December 1988, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared the cold war over. "The use or threat of force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy," he said. "This applies above all to nuclear arms."

He proposed cutting offensive strategic arms in half, jointly safeguarding the environment, banning weapons in outer space, ending exploitation of the third world and cancelling third world debt payments. He called for a UN-brokered ceasefire in Afghanistan, acknowled­ging that, after nine years, the Russians had failed to defeat the Afghan insurgents despite deploying 100,000 troops.

Still, he was not finished. He held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H W Bush, offering a "joint effort to put an end to an era of wars".

The New York Times described Gorbachev's riveting, hour-long speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Roosevelt and Churchill's Atlantic Charter in 1941. The Washington Post called it "a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations".

Gorbachev saw this as a new beginning for America, Russia and the world, but US policymakers had something very different in mind, hailing it as the triumph of the capitalist west after the long decades of the cold war.

In September 1990, Michael Mandelbaum, then director of east-west studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, rejoiced that "for the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III".

The US would soon test that hypothesis, beginning two decades of costly and destructive imperial overreach, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Middle East. It squandered a historic opportunity to make the world a more peaceful and just place, instead declaring itself the global hegemon. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the entire gaggle of neocons was extolling American power and beneficence. "We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join," crowed the military historian Max Boot.

Buzzsaw of opposition

Fast-forward to 2008, when Barack Obama swept to office on a wave of popular euphoria, mesmerising supporters with his inspiring biography, lofty and exhilarating rhetoric, welcome rejection of unilateralism and strong opposition to the Iraq war - qualities that made him seem the antithesis of George W Bush.

Bush and his empire-building advisers - the sorriest crew ever to run this country - had saddled him and the American people with an incredible mess. After two long and disastrous wars, trillions of dollars in military spending, torture and abuse of prisoners on several continents, an economic collapse and near-depression at home, disparities between rich and poor unheard of in an advanced industrial country, government surveillance on an unprecedented scale, collapsing infrastructure and a global reputation left in tatters, the US did not look all that attractive.

Obama has taken a bad situation and, in many ways, made it worse. He got off to a good start, immediately taking steps to reverse some of Bush's most outlandish policies - pledging to end torture and close the detention facility at Guantanamo as well as the network of CIA-administered secret prisons.

But he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from opportunistic Republicans and conservative Democrats over these and other progressive measures and has been in retreat ever since. As a result, his first two years in office have been a disappointment.

Instead of modelling himself after Gorba­chev and boldly championing deeply felt convictions and transformative policies, Obama has taken a page from the Bill (and Hillary) Clinton playbook and governed as a right-leaning centrist. While trying naively to ingratiate himself with an opposition bent solely on his defeat, he has repeatedly turned his back on those who put him in office.

Surrounding himself with Wall Street-friendly advisers and military hawks, he has sent more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; bailed out Wall Street banks while paying scant attention to the plight of the poor and working class; and enacted a tepid version of health reform that, while expanding coverage, represented a boondoggle for the insurance industry. And he has continued many of Bush's civil rights abuses, secrecy obsessions and neoliberal policies that allow the continued looting of the real economy by those who are obscenely wealthy.

Obama has also endorsed a military/security budget that continues to balloon. Recent accounting by Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project found that the US spends over $1.2trn out of its $3trn annual budget on "national security", when all related expenses are factored in.
Still, triumphalist rhetoric abounds. "People are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad," Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations. "So let me say it clearly: the United States can, must and will lead in this new century."

Despite such blather, the US has been relegated to the role of a supporting actor in the extraordinary democratic upheaval sweeping the Middle East. Decades of arming, training and supporting practically every "friendly" dictator in the region and the use of Egyptians as surrogate torturers have stripped the US of all moral authority.

Backbone required

Whatever good may have been done by Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 has been outweighed by US policy, capped by the indefensible US veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory as not only illegal, but an obstacle to peace. (The resolution was sponsored by at least 130 nations and supported by all 14 other members of the Security Council.)

Nor can anyone take seriously the US outrage about repressive regimes using force against their citizens after US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have directly or indirectly been responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the forced emigration of millions.
Where the foreign policy establishment sees only international peril, Obama should see an opportunity - the chance to reinvent himself - to reconnect with the Barack Obama who marched against nuclear weapons while at college and then promised to abolish them in a speech he gave in Prague in April 2009.

He should look to John F Kennedy for precedent. After two nearly disastrous years in office, Kennedy underwent a stunning reversal, repudiating the reckless cold war militarism that defined his early presidency. The Kennedy who was tragically assassinated in November 1963 was looking to end not only the US invasion of Vietnam, but the cold war.

We know from Bob Woodward that during policy discussions regarding Afghanistan, Obama was often the least bellicose person in the room. He has much to learn from Kennedy's scepticism towards military advisers and intelligence officials. As Kennedy told another celebrated journalist, Ben Bradlee: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that, just because they are military men, their opinions on military matters are worth a damn."

There are many ways in which Obama can begin overseeing the end of the American empire and the insane militarism that undergirds it. He has been urged to do so by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who has pressed Obama to stiffen his spine and pursue bold initiatives. "America needs perestroika right now," Gorba­chev said, "because the problems he has to deal with are not easy ones."

The former Soviet leader's solutions included restructuring the economy to eliminate the kind of unregulated free-market policies that caused the current global economic downturn and perpetuate the unconscionable gap between the world's rich and poor.

But, Gorbachev warned, the US can no longer dictate to the rest of the world: "Everyone is used to America as the shepherd that tells everyone what to do. But this period has already ended." He has condemned the Clinton and Bush administrations' dangerous militarisation of international politics and urged the US to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Obama, having wrapped himself even more tightly of late in his cocoon of Wall Street- and empire-friendly advisers, has shown no inclination to heed Gorbachev's advice. He would be wise to do so, because the older man oversaw the dismantling of the USSR in a smoother and more peaceful way than anyone believed possible, and so knows something about bringing the curtain down on a dysfunctional empire that has long overstayed its welcome.

If Obama would seize the opportunity for peace that the Bushes and Clintons seem so intent on strangling in its cradle, perhaps the vision that Gorbachev so brilliantly articulated in 1988 can finally become a reality.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, along with teacher Matt Graham, are finishing a 12-hour documentary "The Forgotten History of the United States," covering the period from 1900 to 2010. This will be premiered later this year in the United States from Showtime. Sky Television is scheduled to premiere the series in the United Kingdom.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit