Leading an Empire in Decline: Obama's First Year

Almost a year ago, in an editorial published on this site we called on Barack Obama to be the hero our country so sorely needed. We pointed back in time to the flush of hope that greeted Bill Clinton's election in 1992, hope that was quickly dashed on the shoals of NAFTA and the Contract with America. Would Obama's early tenure follow a similar trajectory?

So far it has. Obama's first year, including the ongoing health care snafu, has served only to amplify the fact that the government of our country is run by corporations. As Ralph Nader pointed out over a decade ago, it is government "of the Exxons, by the General Motors, and for the DuPonts." Meanwhile, these corporate "persons" slyly deflect public anger back onto the government for the dysfunction and cruelty that results.

This is a society in which the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider even as the work-for-a-living class forks it over to cover bad bets made by the wealthiest. It's a society in which health care remains a privilege, tens of millions of middle-class homes are submerged and untold millions of well-paying industrial and information jobs have been outsourced. Public and private debt has reached astronomical proportions. It's a society inured to perpetual war in service to a vast armaments industry. As Rabbi Michael Lerner put it, it's a society that "leaves people hungry not only for life's necessities, but for ethical and spiritual fulfillment as well."

While the failure to reach a climate agreement in Copenhagen is being blamed on China, it was the US -- the world's lone superpower -- that lost face. Mark Lynas exposed this in the Guardian writing "The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country's foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal..."

But the most hideous manifestations of the current moral, ethical and legal swamp we inhabit -- worse even than the ongoing hijacking by Wall Street banksters -- are the nearly decade-old wars/occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These demonstrate how far we have strayed from the nation's founding principles. Today, our patriarchs are people like Alan Greenspan, who casually admit that "The Iraq War is really about oil." In truth, as author Dallas Darling recently put it, "In the end, the Global War on Terror is really a ruse for a centuries old dream by western powers to dominate the Arabian Peninsula."

The AfPak war is more of the same. Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar's sums it up: "Once again, since the late 1990s, it all comes back to TAPI -- the Turkmenistan/Afghanistan/Pakistan/India gas pipeline -- the key reason Afghanistan is of any strategic importance to the US."

Barack Obama understands this. He also knows that beneath the soil of Afghanistan is a rich store of uranium, tungsten, molybdenum and rare earths (used for everything from TVs to wind turbines to Priuses). And the corporations that supply the missiles, the drones, the surveillance equipment, the helicopters and the fighter jets know that Obama knows this. Why else would they have made him the heavily funded presidential hopeful in history?

In fulfillment of his pledge to the armchair warriors, President Obama has just signed the largest military budget in history, larger than the combined spending of the rest of the planet. Now this military is being unleashed on a semi-literate people engaged in a decades-long civil war. Chances of "success" are slim. As Florida Democrat Alan Grayson explains, "This is an 18th century strategy being employed against a 14th century enemy."

Military intelligence inside the Obama administration estimates that there are approximately 100 al Qaeda fighters in the entire country of Afghanistan. This is the "cancer" the president says justifies sending 30,000 more troops at a cost of a billion dollars for every thousand soldiers. Once the latest Obama surge is in place, the US will have twice as many troops and contractors in Afghanistan as did the USSR at the height of their south Asian disaster.

While the elites -- economic, military and political -- hold tight to their faith in the "exceptional" character of the American imperium, pressure is building for a new narrative. "Burgeoning forces for democracy are emerging," writes Middle East scholar Mark Levine, "both in the Muslim world and across the global south." These forces were on display in Copenhagen and are now bravely gathering on the streets of Tehran. US preoccupation with the Global War on Terror has helped Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, and other Latin American countries free themselves from decades of subservience.

The new decade could even bring a resurgence of democracy here at home. If Barack Obama isn't prepared to help lead such a movement, he'll have to get out of the way. As Dylan warned a few decades back, "You'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone."

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