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January 22, 2009


Barack Obama, Emperor

by Nebojsa Malic

Despite the bitter cold, over a million people crowded on the streets of Washington, DC in rapture to watch as Barack Hussein Obama II became the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday.

Obama's rise to power can only be described as meteoric. He became the New Hope of the Democratic party following a rousing speech at the 2004 convention – especially after the candidate nominated at the said convention, John Kerry, was trounced that fall by George W. Bush, who had already committed the vast majority of his gaffes and blunders as emperor. For a while in late 2007 it looked as if Hillary Clinton might triumph in the primaries; but Obama offered a message ("Yes we can!" "Hope" and "Change") and fundraising ability that Clinton could not match. As the price of nomination, the self-proclaimed outsider surrounded himself with Washington insiders, from VP Joseph Biden to, yes, Hillary Clinton.

Opinions may vary on how much, if anything, Obama has actually done during his one term in the Senate and three terms in the Illinois state legislature, but there is no doubt that the man is a charismatic and superbly talented orator. His first inaugural address, reportedly penned by 27-year-old Jon Favreau, was an exercise in Ciceronian art. But when we look past the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration day, the cheering crowds and the blasphemous panegyrics in the press, the question remains: what did President Obama's speech actually mean?

Breaking the Faith

Obviously, the function of Obama's inaugural address was to deliver a message of hope and inspiration to a country hit hard by an economic crisis, mired in an endless war against an ethereal enemy, and worn down from eight years under a regime that believed its will alone could shape reality. But any inaugural speech also serves to set the tone for the coming presidency. Amid the paternal praise and encouragement that Obama offered to the American people, there were glimpses of his beliefs and intentions – none of them reassuring.

For example, does Obama honestly believe that "we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents"? It is extremely unlikely the Founders would recognize what became of the Republic they created, if they could see it today. Here is how Thomas Jefferson articulated the Founders' sentiment in drafting the document adopted in 1787:

"In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Yet the government of which Obama became the chief executive this week has become an omnipresent busybody that considers the Constitution "just a damn piece of paper" – when it remembers it at all! 

Remaking America

Equally disconcerting is the declaration that, "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

One could make a good argument that the country that emerged from the 1861-1865 war was already radically different from what was set out in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. Major changes certainly took place in 1913, when a slew of legislation established the income tax, direct election of Senators, the Federal Reserve, and a nationwide prohibition on alcohol.

So, the government in Washington has been "remaking" America for almost a hundred years – sometimes for the better, often for the worse, but always by force.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," said Obama. Fine, it doesn't matter what color the cat, so long as it catches mice. But what does Obama see as the government's job? To help "families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."

This isn't the state-as-necessary-evil view of a classical liberal (such as Jefferson or even Hamilton), but a state-as-parent belief of modern collectivists. There was a system that promised a job for every worker, free healthcare and a guaranteed state pension. It died in 1989 in Eastern Europe.

Back to 1999

Those that hoped against hope that Obama would be a president, not an Emperor, were in for a disappointment. His messages to the rest of the world in the inaugural speech suggest that he does not intend to abandon the foolish idea of American global hegemony, only to revise its image to that of the (supposedly) more appealing 1990s.

"[O]ur spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you," could have just as easily come from Bush the Lesser – though perhaps from him it would not have seemed nearly as convincing.

Much more ominous was Obama's announcement that, "we are ready to lead once more."

Last January, in a Washington Post op-ed, Foreign Policy editor in chief Moises Naim put forward an argument that the Bush administration was one of "disengagement and distraction," and that the world actually wanted American "leadership" and needed American hegemony. At the time, it looked like Naim was stating the case for Empress Clinton; now Emperor Obama appears to have embraced his argument. And though she missed out on the White House, Hillary Clinton looks set to take control of U.S. foreign policy within days.

It is in that light that one should interpret Obama's statement that, "We can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders."

This is nothing else than a blanket endorsement of "humanitarian intervention," a specious concept pioneered in the years of Bill Clinton's presidency to justify American military involvement in other countries. Under the banner of preventing humanitarian disasters such as "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide," the Clinton regime invaded, bombed and occupied, international law be damned.

Bush the Lesser's "disengagement and distraction" in Iraq was rightly seen as a continuation of Clinton's imperial adventures. The only difference is that Bush launched expensive, all-out wars he chose to justify by naked assertion of American power ("So what?"), while Clinton preferred his wars to be by proxy or from 15,000 feet, masquerading as charity.

One is compelled to wonder what happened to the "tempering qualities of humility and restraint." Perhaps they mean as much as Bush II's campaign pledge to abandon "nation-building" and engage in a "more humble foreign policy."

Not that there is any reason to fear that Obama's administration would engage in nation-building, not after he said:

"[W]e cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

Same as the Old Boss

Obama finished the speech by quoting George Washington's words about the endurance at Valley Forge, and warning Americans that "we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly." Those duties, as the speech suggests, apparently include "remaking" America, making the federal government the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be (while pretending to have stayed faithful to the ideals of the Founders), and "leading" the world into a new age of post-ethnic, post-national prosperity.

On September 14, Bush II also spoke of a "historical responsibility" of Americans – to "rid the world of evil." How is this different? 

Barack Obama came to the White House on a promise of change. Everything he has done, however, from his staff and cabinet appointments to his inaugural speech, indicates that he is all about continuity. No matter what he calls it, to the recipients of his "leadership" in the months and years to come, it will be the same old American Empire.


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  • Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.

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