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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

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Donald Trump’s hollow coronation

The presidential candidate was forced to wheel out family members at the Republican National Convention, as party grandees stayed away. 

For a member of what Donald Trump calls his silent majority, Jim Morrison, a haulier from California, talks a lot. “He is touching on things I feel – that millions of Americans feel – but I don’t have the microphone and can’t take on Washington,” Morrison said. The words tumbled from his mouth as he stood beside the blood-red cab of his lorry, which carried him from his home state to Cleveland, Ohio, on a seven-day journey in a “Truckers for Trump” convoy.

Trump had promised an unconventional Republican National Convention and Morrison was typical of the new breed of political activists attending their first Grand Old Party summer jamboree. The start of the four-day convention also offered both a taste of what a Trump administration might  look like and a summary of the factors that helped a bombastic billionaire and political novice secure the presidential nomination for the Republican Party.

The answers lay not just in the cavernous interior of the Quicken Loans Arena, where the delegates assembled, but also among the lawn-fringed public squares heaving with supporters and protesters vying to fly the most outrageous banners. Above all, they lay in the wide boulevards where heavy, concrete barricades had been laid to prevent terrorist attacks, and in the flags flying at half-mast overhead, marking America’s latest mass shooting.

The convention began just a day after three police officers were shot dead by a gunman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It’s pathetic that our society has got to the point where they are doing this to our cops,” said Morrison, the trucker, firing gobbets of tobacco-coloured spit on to the pavement.

If one theme sums up the issues at stake in this election – from jobs to terrorism – it is insecurity. The terrorist attack in Nice merely stoked fears that had grown during the past year as Americans dealt with Islamic State-inspired attacks on home soil, the murder of police officers and a gaping racial divide.

In Cleveland, all this manifested in the city ordering an extra 10,000 sets of handcuffs, deploying 5,500 law enforcement officers and buying 300 bicycles for officers tasked with crowd control. Some of the measures were farcical – such as banning anyone carrying tennis balls from the convention environs – in a state where citizens are allowed to carry assault rifles openly.

This is the backdrop against which Trump delivers his hard-line message, warning that terrorists could arrive among Syrian refugees and that the country needs a wall on its southern border. Indeed, Monday’s theme was “make America safe again”, and outside the centre vendors hawked T-shirts portraying Trump as Captain America or Iron Man. “He’s a man to get things done, even if that might upset the PC crowd,” is how one delegate put it as she queued to get into the arena.

Political scientists have identified a trend in this election, suggesting that America’s two main political parties are shaking up not along the lines of left and right, but in terms of attitudes to authoritarianism. Many Republicans are looking for a strongman, according to research carried out by Matthew MacWilliams, founder of the political communications firm MacWilliams Sanders. In this context, Trump’s message – strong v weak, winners against losers, and a new nativism – is a guaranteed vote-winner.

For his opponents, it is not a new message. Edmund Berger, a writer and activist, said that Trump was just the latest “1 per center” to go after the working-class vote by ripping Band-Aids off society. “He’s stoking the fires of racial tension with his stuff on immigrants and hard-line foreign policy,” he said, sitting in Public Square, an open space that has been turned into a sort of Speakers’ Corner. “The hate can come out finally.”

The presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was attacked relentlessly. “Trump v tramp”, read one banner, and the convention programme followed on from there. It included sessions on Bill Clinton’s sex life and scrutiny of her handling of the Benghazi attack, in which four Americans died in 2012.

Yet even the best-laid plans have a habit of coming unstuck around Trump’s idiosyncratic approach. During one of the most powerful sessions, as Patricia Smith, the mother of a state department officer killed in Benghazi, delivered a searing speech holding Clinton responsible for the death of her son, Trump phoned Fox News. Because of his live interview, the channel cut away from Smith’s speech, leading one of Fox’s analysts to call Trump’s timing “interesting”.

Nor did the programme live up to Trump’s frequent promises to add more showbiz to the convention. Republican royalty, such as the Bush family, stayed away, as did the party’s biggest celebrity supporters, including Clint Eastwood and Jon Voight.

Instead, the roster was padded by the sort of people known only to fans of daytime TV and wackier reality shows – and by Trump’s wife, Melania, and four of his children. The risks of that approach were evident on Monday night, after Melania’s speech bore more than a passing resemblance to a convention address by another prospective first lady, Michelle Obama, in 2008. The plagiarism controversy will reinforce existing concerns about the Trumps playing fast and loose with the rules.

Others in the audience saw another problem with relying on relatives rather than heavy-hitting conservatives. “I know he’s selected them to reflect the different facets of his personality,” said Theodore Golubrinski, a member of the Michigan delegation, “but this looks like a coronation.”

The suspicion is that Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention would also look like Donald Trump’s White House, with low-rent celebrities, fringe Republicans and naive family members making up the numbers.