Barack Obama & the neoliberal embrace of the American way of continual war

by: Paul Rosenberg

Tue Aug 03, 2010 at 10:30


"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."
      -- Groucho Marx

In my diary "Neoliberalism's "Heart of Darkness", yesterday, I wrote (and Mark Matson underscored):

It's not that morality plays no role for neoliberals: it's an input, a variable, a side issue--it can take on any number of forms... except that of an actual moral imperative.

And Mark added:

The whole point was neoliberals use a different decision making process than progressives.  That is true regardless if they end up agreeing with your final conclusion or not.

However, as I argued in an earlier diary focused on economic policy, "The sensible center outraged by the 'sensible center'", there's a further difference between neoliberals who have a firm grasp on certain significant historical facts--such as Brad DeLong and Matt Miller in that case--and those that do not--such as President Obama--those who are ultimately creatures of whatever political process they find themselves embedded within.  For Obama, all facts are eventually fungible, as a too-small stimulus becomes "just right", a cowardly, mean-spirited, obstructionist senator (Democratic or Republicans) becomes a great statesman (or woman) aand whatever war needs fighting next automatically becomes a "smart war" even though all the evidence of history tells us that it is as dumb as eternity is long.

The neoliberal way is one that "goes meta" by treating everything as a process to be analyzed considering all the variables (including moral considerations), tweaking them here and there, and then coming up with a supposedly "optimum" solution. At least that's the aspiration. This contrasts sharply with leftist traditions that "go meta" by adopting religious, philosophical or scientific frameworks that are inherently skeptical of and stand apart from the everyday discourse used to discuss a given subject.

I had meant to write a diary about all that today or tomorrow.  But then came this segment on The Racel Maddow Show yesteday, and I think it's sufficient to simply state the above as a framework for viewing this segment, and in particular, the section that I've quoted below.  It demonstrates in tragic specificity how this double difference between left/progressive analysis and Obama's entirely relativist form of neoliberalism:

MADDOW: A week before Congress passed the joint resolution authorizing war against Iraq in 2003, an Illinois state senator stood up before an anti-war rally in Chicago. He described Saddam Hussein as a bad guy who the world and the Iraqi people would be better off without. But then, State Senator Obama said this, quote, "I also know that Saddam poses no direct threat, no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength and that in concert with the international community, he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dust bin of history." "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require an occupation a U.S. occupation of undetermined length at undetermined costs with undetermined consequences." "I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst better than the best impulses of Arab world and strengthen the recruitment of al-Qaeda." "I`m not opposed to all wars," he said, "I`m opposed to dumb wars."

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq since that young state senator became president of the United States has dropped by 90,000 and will apparently drop to zero by this time next year. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, however, since that young state senator became president has tripled. Joining us now is Andrew Bacevich. He is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He retired at the rank of colonel after 23 years in the United States Army. And he`s author of the new book, " Washington Rules: America`s Path to Permanent War." Professor Bacevich, thanks very much for being here.

ANDREW BACEVICH, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Thanks for having me on the program.

MADDOW: Do you think there`s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans on the biggest most important issues in national security?

BACEVICH: The differences are far smaller than one would conclude from all of the rhetoric and the hype. I`ve long believed that if you`re looking for the big truths about American politics, about the way Washington works, you don`t look at the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. You look for the continuities. And I think when it comes to the national security policy, going all the way back to the beginning of the Cold War, the continuities are quite evident and very strong and continue down to the present day with the president who promised he was going to change the way Washington works.

MADDOW: And that, to you, boils down to Washington rules, this credo that America has to determine sort of the means by which the rest of the world is allowed to run and that we need to enforce that by global military dominance. That means having troops everywhere all over the world, being able to project force all over everywhere in the world and being repeatedly almost in a recidivist way, being interventionist all the time?

BACEVICH: Exactly right. I mean, I was really struck by that quotation from State Senator Obama who, at that point, is not a creature of Washington and who, in that quotation, reflected, I think, a real skepticism about the way we do our national security policy. That skepticism today with President Obama has long since vanished. I mean, you have to be struck by the fact that President Obama has followed a path in Afghanistan that is probably identical to the path that Sen. McCain would have followed had we elected Sen. McCain president. There is no real change when it comes to national security policy. And as someone who voted for the president and admires the president, I have to say that that absence of change is not only disappointing. I think it may even qualify as tragic.

That's what happens when your highest principles are just variables in an equation--or rather, when your highest principle is to adjust the variables in all your equations to fit the political environment of the moment.

Paul Rosenberg :: Barack Obama & the neoliberal embrace of the American way of continual war

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Interesting (4.00 / 8)
I think you might be getting at the proper way of viewing Obama. He's not a committed neoliberal on economics like Larry Summers, nor he is a committed neoliberal foreign policy hawk like Hillary Clinton. Rather, he's a neoliberal by default --  because neoliberal positions allow him to both please the establishment and appease enough of the Democratic base. After all, at the national level, neoliberalism is the natural philosophy for Democratic compromisers, wafflers, and triangulators.

Throughout his career he's been only as liberal as he thought he needed to be, and not a smidgen more.

That person who gave the good speech in 2002 sure seems different. But what was different was the context. During various times in his career, when it was in his political interest to do so, he's taken decidedly liberal (not neoliberal positions) like supporting single-payer and opposing the death penalty.

Consider this part from his 2002 speech:

What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

Huzzah! But he was Senate candidate in a Democratic state. He stopped using rhetoric like that as soon as he entered the club, where he promptly cozied up to Holy Joe, whom he would eventually endorse. And during the presidential campaign he was hawkish on Afghanistan and relatively hawkish on Iraq, refusing to support defunding until the 11th hour (until he absolutely couldn't) when he slunk in after Hillary and cast an ashamed vote.

All of which is to say he'll govern as a progressive only if there's a large and unmistakable price for not doing so. But we're already knew that, didn't we?



We've Spent A Long, Long Time Educating Ourselves On The Nature Of Conservatism (4.00 / 2)
and now we've got to do the same with neoliberalism.

I think you're mostly right about Obama, but not entirely.  I think there's also conflicting elements of wanting to belong to his grandparent's world, and yet being tugged at by his mother's example. So I think there was actually something genuine in his earlier idealism. But it was no match for the other factors at play.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Yeah (4.00 / 3)
Being tugged at -- and resenting -- his mother's example. But that's enough psychoanalysis for now.

On neoliberalism, it might be useful for you to do a basic what-is-neoliberalism post. (If you haven't already. I haven't been around here in a few weeks.)

It gets a little confusing. There's John Williamson's Washington Consensus, a set of neoliberal principles endorsed by everyone from "liberal" Dems to conservative Republicans. Then there's Robert Rubin's and Bill Clinton (and Joe Stiglitz's) Third Way neoliberalism. There's overlap, of course, but they're different creatures.  


[ Parent ]
Oh Boy! (4.00 / 1)
Yeah, I guess it's inevitable that I do something broad on neoliberalism.  Not this week, though.

As for the pyschoanalysis, it's important, I think, though only in a secondary sense. Context and ideology come first.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
I wouldn't say he resented his mother's example at all. (4.00 / 1)
Then again, I'm certainly not qualified to psychoanalyze POTUS either. But given his mother's background as a neo-liberal "economic hitperson" in Indonesia, if he really resents all that, he's done a splendid job of covering that up!

As to the various "brands" of neo-liberalism, I think you're giving these people way too much credit in the originality department. I can't separate the Washington Consensus from Third Way, because they're basically the same people and the same ideas. Sure, different organs will express it differently, depending on which audience they're speaking to at the time, but ideologically they are inseparable. Rhetoric and policy are not the same thing. Indeed, I can't remember a time in which these groups had any disagreements. Ever. Perhaps I'm wrong on that count, but I don't think so.

I also think it's more than fair to subtract Stiglitz from that crowd. If anything, he was one of the first prominent econs to flee that group, assuming he was ever really a diehard neo-lib in the first place--consider his rather prickly relations with the diehards in that group during the Clinton Admin: Summers, Rubin, Geithner and so on. It wasn't just personality conflicts, as the neo-libs are always quick to point out.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
No, I'm not giving them credit (0.00 / 0)
Merely pointing out that there are different strands of neoliberalism with different areas of focus. The Washington Consensus, at least as it has come to be understood, refers to policies imposed on poor nations by rich national via the WTO, the IMF, etc. You need not be a neoliberal in the domestic sense to embrace them. Third Way neoliberalism refers to the recasting of the Democratic party liberalism, as overseen by Clinton, the DLC, etc, and applies to much more than economics.  

[ Parent ]
I would counter with the observation that... (4.00 / 3)
... the Washington Consensus is being applied domestically as much as it is internationally at this point. In this sense, there is precisely no difference between the Washington Consensus, which is about raping poor countries, and the Third Way, which is about raping the American middle and lower classes.

Destruction of human rights, destruction of democratic institutions, promotion of right-wing authoritarian ideas, appropriation of natural and other resources for corporate gain, hollowing out the state to make it a vessel of corporate governance.... it's all the same.

Perhaps it might be more clarifying if we spoke of neo-liberalism as Straussian Liberalism or something like that. Because it's not liberal at all. It is the antithesis of liberalism at it's very core, just as neo-conservatism is the antithesis of "conservatism" at it's very core.

But whatever the case, there is no real difference between different groups of neo-liberals. They all stand for the same things, but they have to operate in different environments and as such they all have limitations as to what they can actually get away with.

What we're seeing in the current crew is they think they can get away with anything they wish. The only difference between the Third Way crew in the '90s  and them now is the mutant, monster hubris they've developed in the mean time.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
I'm repeating this because it is spot on (0.00 / 0)
and far too under appreciated:

the Washington Consensus is being applied domestically as much as it is internationally at this point.

And no, in either case, you cannot blame it on a handful of conservative Senators or Republican intransigence.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
David Harvey's "A brief history of Neo-Liberalism" (2005) (0.00 / 0)
Recommended!

USA: 1950 to 2010

[ Parent ]
Deontological ethics vs consequentialism (4.00 / 1)
This seems to be part of that on-going argument, with progressives cast on the side of deontology (home of Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, and Ayn Rand) and neoliberals on the side of consequentialism (John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer, and Amartya Sen).

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

Not At All--The Perils of OTROWism (4.00 / 2)
I'm a Jamesian pluralist and a "Big P" pragmatist.  There are some sorts of questions that are at their core matters of pure principle. And there are other sorts of questions that are basically matters of trade-offs.  "Small p" pragmatism is called for in the latter case, while deontology is called for in the former.

The error lies in thinking that can only be One True Right and Only Way to think about moral questions.  This error is know by its initials: OTROWism.  It is an error that's particularly endemic to monotheistic cultures, which is probably why it's so widely recognized in the neo-pagan community, but not so much outside of it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Does EVERYBODY hate a mixed bag? (0.00 / 0)
Whoops! There goes We hold these truths to be self evident.... I suppose it depends on what you think hold means... or is is...or something.

It's not that I don't think that clarity isn't possible, you understand; it's that I think attempts to come to it will have to embrace a lot more chaos along the way than either deontology or consequentialism ordinarily allow. Of course, they're only analytic models -- pieces of a far larger whole -- which is why I like your habit of calling yourself a Jamesian. Even though my own thoughts and attitudes are a mixed bag by comparison (and I suspect yours might be as well) it's a good one-word tagline. (Kinda like liberal, or progressive, or social democrat.)


[ Parent ]
Me and Shakespeare...NOT (0.00 / 0)
Rhetorical double negatives suck. Let's try that again:

It's not that I think that clarity isn't possible...

There. I think a second cup of coffee is now in order.


[ Parent ]
An Old Philosophy Story... (4.00 / 2)
From when I was a philosophy undergrad:

A famous language philosopher was giving a keynote convention speech.  "There are many languages in which a double negative is a negative," he says.  Heads nod throughout the hall, as if this observation is profound.

"And there are also many languages in which a double negative is a positive," he continues.  Again, heads nod, anticipating the great wisdom that is surely to come.

"But there is no language in which a double postive is a negative," he continues, heightening expectations further for deep insight that is surely about to come... when, from the back of the room, in a sort of cockney voice some anonymous smart alec pierces the solemn air: "Yeah, yeah!"

The philopher's reputation never recovered.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
The Declaration of Independence (4.00 / 1)
Is a propaganda piece, not a philosophical treatise.

Since I am fond of postmodernism, I tend to hold most truths as not self-evident.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
Postmodernism is an affliction of the comfortable (4.00 / 5)
Easier to subscribe to, in other words, if it -- and its adherents -- are never in any danger of being tested.

[ Parent ]
A mixed ethical theory (0.00 / 0)
Is one solution out there in the deontological/consequentialist debate.

I may go farther than you and say that there is no One True Right and Only Way to think about specific moral questions, declining to hold that there are any moral questions that call for an exclusively deontological (or other) perspective.

Ideally, we should have the ability to empathetically duplicate the decision-making process.  It shouldn't be the controlling mode of thought and you should always be able to override it, but it should be in the toolbox as something useful.  You're not going to lose your soul by learning how to think like a neoliberal.  Instead, people sometimes seem afraid.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
Not Afraid (4.00 / 2)
so much as morally revolted.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Careful (0.00 / 0)
Disgust is a conservative trait.

[ Parent ]
True, But (0.00 / 0)
It's not entirely absent among liberals.  Just a lot less important.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Conparallelism (0.00 / 0)
I believe in conparallelism, myself.

[ Parent ]
A Short Con & A Long Con Running In Parallel? (4.00 / 1)
Isn't that just about every decent con movie ever made?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Serious Jests (0.00 / 0)
Obviously, I just made up the term in jest.  Cognitively, parallel is always* better than sequential, so I made a swap.  But like most of my jests, I think I'm actually serious.  The simple act of constructing a word seems to lead to the correct answer.

Ends do not justify the means, but one is still ultimately aiming for positive ends.  But each action must also be moral and justified.  Overall it is quite complex, but each action can be very simple.

[*always  see what I did there?]


[ Parent ]
I Knew What You Were Up To (0.00 / 0)
But I Googled, just to make sure.

Still, it was nice to get you to articulate it openly.

And I actually have been thinking about hoaxes and cons recently--with Breitbart in the news so much recently, how could I not?---which inevitably leads to thinking about The Sting and others in a similar vein.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
simplify (0.00 / 0)
Why don't we just keep it simple? There's a word for exactly what you're describing:  opportunism.  

Theories Should Be As Simple As Possible To Explain The Phenomena (4.00 / 1)
But no simpler.

I think it was Einstein or Bohr or someone else in that crowd who said that--although probably in German.

Or it could have been David Hilbert.

Regardless of who it was, it's obviously true.

Just ask anyone who's tried to do Euclidean geometry with only four axioms.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
You're first guess is correct. (4.00 / 2)
Twas Einstein. He also said:

"It is the theory that determines what can be observed." Which is the kind of thought that generates words like, "pernicious" when I think of certain ideologies, like the one this thread discusses, for example.  

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
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