Revealing Moments: Obama, WikiLeaks, the “Good War” Myth, and Silly Liberal Faith in the Emperor

War Crime Whistleblower in Obama’s Sights, War Criminals Not

Private First Class Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. Army intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq, is being prosecuted by the Obama administration for disclosing a classified video showing American troops murdering civilians in Baghdad from an Apache Attack Helicopter in 2007.  Eleven adults were killed in the attack captured on tape, including two Reuters journalists.  Two children were critically injured.  The video (available at was published by WikiLeaks in early April of this year.  The soldiers shown in the video have yet to face charges.  Manning is looking at 52 years in federal prison if convicted.

It might seem odd to some that the Obama White House is going after Manning and not the war criminals Manning may have helped expose.  Didn’t Obama use his opposition to the highly unpopular Iraq War to advance his presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008?  Yes, he did, but once he succeeded in exploiting the Iraq War to gain the nation’s highest office, Obama became commander in chief of the world’s greatest imperial killing machine.  He and his handlers hardly want to do anything that might inhibit the American military’s freedom of action as he conducts a “five-front terror war” (Glenn Greenwald) in Iraq (where Obama has defied his campaign promises by acting to sustain the U.S. occupation), Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  It should also be remembered that U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Obama repeatedly voted to fund the Iraq occupation, campaigned for pro-war against anti-war Democrats in the 2006 congressional primaries, and never once criticized Cheney and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq on moral or legal grounds.  Candidate Obama’s only problem with the Iraq occupation was that it did not make strategic sense for the interests of the supposedly benevolent and exceptionally humane and democratic American Empire.  He saw the Iraq occupation like the elite Democratic “doves” of the late 1960s saw the Vietnam War — as a tactical “mistake” carried out with the best, indeed an excess, of democratic intentions.  In late 2006, speaking to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Obama even had the cold imperial audacity to say the following in support of his claim that most U.S. citizens supported  “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved.  They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah” (emphasis added).  This was a spine-chilling selection of locales.  Fallujah was the site for colossal U.S. atrocity — American crimes included the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city — by the U.S. military in April and November of 2004.  The town was designated for destruction as an example of the awesome state terror promised to those who dared to resist U.S. power.  Not surprisingly, Fallujah became a powerful and instant symbol of American imperialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.  It was a deeply provocative and insulting place for Obama to have chosen to highlight American sacrifice and “resolve” in the imperialist occupation of Iraq.  For these and many other reasons detailed in the fourth chapter of my early 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), it is hardly surprising that Obama as president is going after an America Iraq war crime whistleblower, not American war crimes in Iraq.

Obama’s Response to the WikiLeaks War Logs: Deplore, Downplay, and (Yet) Exploit

Now, mainstream news sources are speculating that Bradley Manning may be involved in a new leak of more than 90,000 secret documents — dubbed the Afghanistan “war logs” — made public by WikiLeaks last Sunday.  We can expect the military and the White House to pursue criminal investigations.  The documents reveal massive internal U.S government intelligence on the difficulty and even futility of the American colonial war in and on Afghanistan, a great historical graveyard of empires past and present.  The war continues unabated and escalated in the age of the supposed peace president Barack Obama, who ran for the presidency on a promise to increase imperial violence in South Asia even as many of his “progressive” supporters foolishly took his tactical critique of George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion as proof that he was an “antiwar” candidate.  There is some analogy between this latest (Wiki)-leak and the Pentagon Papers, famously released to the New York Times by former Pentagon analyst and super-whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg.  Like the Pentagon Papers, the Afghanistan “war logs” reveal a disconnect between the officially positive rhetoric of the executive branch and Pentagon and the harsh and bloody “on-the-ground” reality of a vicious colonial war — a war in which the U.S. is a pitiful imperial giant experiencing little success in winning popular “hearts and minds” and ending resistance to its supposedly benevolent invasion.  Like its Vietnam-era predecessor, the new leak of classified documents suggests a murderous empire that is out of control, compelled to kill and kill again like a pitiless Mafia Don in order to create an illusion of success and to hide its inability to manage events and populations in distant peripheries.  It shows Obama’s supposed “good” and proper war — Afghanistan — to be an at least partly Vietnam-like quagmire.

The new war president’s administration has undertaken a reprehensible three-track response to the WikiLeaks’ revelations.  Track one is to deplore the leak, claiming that it is a violation of national security that puts innocent Afghanis and Americans at risk of murder and terrorist attack.  The claim is not very impressive.  The primary threat to Afghan civilians is the U.S. occupation, characterized by 10 years of bombings, drone slaughters, checkpoint shootings, targeted death-squad assassinations, massive political de-stabilization, and more.  Just ask the survivors of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama’s May 2009 bombing of Bola Boluk — an epic slaughter of women and children for which the White House refused to apologize (even as it apologized to the people of New York City because of an ill-advised Air Force One flyover that briefly reminded Manhattan residents and workers of 9/11).  Al Qaeda and other Islamic terror networks hardly depend on Afghanistan or Pakistan for “safe havens,” and the U.S. imperial presence in Afghanistan and elsewhere (characterized by some incredibly bloody dealings that are detailed in the Afghan War Logs) are precisely the sort of American actions that inspire countless Muslims to attack US symbols, structures, and people.

Track two is to downplay the significance of the material leaked, claiming that — as Obama said — “These documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.”1  While it is true that what passes for a “public debate” in the narrow, corporate-managed culture imposed by dominant war and entertainment media has permitted some acknowledgement that things aren’t going so hot for Uncle Sam in Afghanistan, the president’s statement is far too strong.  Amid rising establishment and media concern that Barack Obama’s “surge” strategy is breaking down, the “war logs” detail how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents; how a secret “black” unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial; how the Pentagon covered up evidence that the Taliban has acquired lethal surface-to-air missiles; and how the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.  I’ve missed detailed discussion of all this and more that emerge from the “war logs” in our not-so-“informed” “public debate.”

Track three is to exploit the “war logs” by claiming that the WikiLeaks disclosures about the “mishandling” of the Afghan war justify his “decision to embark on a new strategy.”  “The period of time covered in these documents [January 2004-December 2009] is before the President announced his new strategy,” the White House told reporters via email last Sunday.  “Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.”2  In his first public statement about the leaked documents last week, Obama argued that the material highlighted the challenges that led him to announce a “change in strategy” that involved sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan late last year.  “For seven years, we failed to implement a strategy adequate to the challenge,” Obama said, referring to the period starting with the 9/11 attacks.  “That is why we’ve substantially increased our commitment there” and “developed a new strategy,” he said, adding he has also sent “one of our finest generals,” General David Petraeus.  Claiming that his “new strategy . . . can work,” Obama concluded with a plea for the U.S. House of Representatives to join the U.S. Senate in passing legislation to fund the Afghan war for yet another year.  The plea worked in spite of the fact that just a third of the U.S. populace now approves (according to a recent Reuters poll) of Obama’s Afghan policy.

The claim that the “war logs” relate only to the Bush era and predate the supposedly new strategy under Obama is not impressive.  As the former Obama supporter and left media and social critic Norman Solomon notes:

Unfortunately, the “change in strategy” has remained on the same basic track as the old strategy — except for escalation.  On Tuesday morning, the lead story on The New York Times web site noted: “As the debate over the war begins anew, administration officials have been striking tones similar to the Bush administration’s to argue for continuing the current Afghanistan strategy, which calls for a significant troop buildup.”

Even while straining to depict the US war policy as freshly hatched since last winter, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs solemnly proclaimed that the basis for it hasn’t changed since the autumn of 2001.  “We are in this region of the world because of what happened on 9/11,” Gibbs said on Monday.  “Ensuring that there is not a safe haven in Afghanistan by which attacks against this country and countries around the world can be planned.”  In other words: a nifty rationale for perpetual war. . . .

What has been most significant about “the president’s new policy” is the steady step-up of bombing in Afghanistan and the raising of US troop levels in that country to a total of 100,000.  None of what was basically wrong with the war last year has been solved by the “new policy.”  On the contrary.3

As is so often the case, the Obama administration’s claims of change and novelty seem to represent little more than deceptive cover for substantive policy continuity, the same old imperial regime.

“A War That Was Necessary”

It is depressing if unsurprising to see the leftmost reaches of narrow mainstream commentary cling in its “war logs” coverage to the notion of Afghanistan as “the good war,” the noble “ball” that Bush “dropped” because of his great Iraq “mistake” (crime anyone?).  Listen to the following reflections (linked on the New York Times Web site) from Neal Sheehan, a New York Times reporter who helped break the Pentagon Papers story:

[The Afghan war logs] show how difficult the war in Afghanistan is.  It’s a very complicated situation.  You’ve got a government in Kabul which is corrupt and untrustworthy.  You’ve got Pakistani allies which are not necessarily always your allies.  You’ve got a Taliban movement which is resurgent, but also isn’t unified.  It has its own factions, but it’s a resilient movement.

The WikiLeaks revelations are very valuable, I think.  They show how hard it is going to be to reach the objective the U.S. wants to reach, which is basically pacifying the country.  Coming up with a sort of agreement which will pacify the country and end the insurgency.  It shows how difficult it is to deal with your own allies.

It gives you a good insight into the war, the kind of war Americans are faced with.  It shows the extent to which the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan and wasted resources in Iraq on a war that wasn’t necessary, and ignored a war that was necessary in Afghanistan.  The situation has worsened markedly as a result of that neglect.4

It’s sad to see Sheehan reflexively spit out the standard imperial good war (Afghanistan)/bad war (Iraq) dichotomy and the ease with which he ignores the WiklLeaks findings on distinctly uncomplicated U.S. criminality in its supposedly “necessary” war.  As the prominent U.S. legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July 2008, “The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq.”  The United States’ attack on Afghanistan met none of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council.  The U.N. Charter requires member states to settle international disputes by peaceful means.  Nations are permitted to use military force only in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council.  After 9/11, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan.  Assaulting that country was not legitimate self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter since the jetliner assaults were criminal attacks, not “armed attacks” by another country.  Afghanistan did not attack the U.S. and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.  Furthermore, there was no “imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11 or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign.”  As Cohn notes, international law requires that “The necessity for self-defense must be ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’  This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly.”

Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs’ repetition of the “safe haven” argument is depressing.  As Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Stephen Walt noted in an August 2009 Foreign Policy essay, Obama’s “safe haven myth” rests on the fundamentally flawed premise that al Qaeda or its many and various imitators couldn’t just as effectively plot and conduct future terror attacks from any of a large number of other locations, including Western Europe and the U.S. itself.  At the same time, Walt observed, Obama’s expanded engagement in the “ambitious social and political reconstruction and re-engineering of Afghanistan and perhaps even Pakistan” simply reinforced al Qaeda’s core (and correct) claim that the West’s and the above all the United States’ presence in South Asia is about imperial control.  The more the U.S. is seen as “trying to restructure their societies along lines that we think are appropriate,” Walt notes, “the more we play into the narrative that they use to try and attract support and recruit people in Afghanistan itself.”5

“If Only He Knew”

The award for the single most childish comment on Obama and the WikiLeaks War Logs goes to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the manager of the supposedly left-liberal magazine The Nation.  “I hope,” Vanden Heuvel writes, “the ensuing discussion will lead President Obama to understand that the human and financial costs of continuing on this path [of escalation in Af-Pak] far outstrip any conceivable security benefits.  In fact, it is clear from the granular details in the war logs, and especially in the sections about collusion between Pakistan intelligence services and the Taliban, that any homeland security provided by the war is significantly undermined by the anger and resentment — and armed resistance — of our Central and South Asian hosts.  And the evidence that U.S. troops have sanitized accounts of bloody scenes they’ve left in their wake underscores that our presence in Afghanistan is counterproductive.”6

One might raise more-than-minor quibbles with Vanden Heuvel’s word choices here.  “Hosts” is an odd term to describe those the U.S. has imperially invaded and assaulted: you do not “host” me when I break into your house and start killing people.  And “counterproductive” seems like an understatement when applied to an invasion that is criminal, mass-murderous, and deeply provocative.  The bigger problem, however, is what the insightful blogger “IOZ” calls Vanden Heuvel’s “curious conceit” that “the public revelation of information to which the administration has always been privy will spark a ‘discussion [that] will lead President Obama to understand.'”  “IOZ” hypothesizes (correctly in my view) that Vanden Heuvel’s silly “hope” (always a keyword in relation to Obama!) reflects exaggerated self-importance combined with an overly strong identification with Obama that is all too common among the president’s power-worshipping fan club:

I suppose it is, at least, a testament to the over-inflated self-regard of the Vanden Heuvels of the world, to suppose that if they jabber persistently enough, the emperor will come to know what he’s always known.  There actually seems to be broad confusion among the President’s supporters on this fact — so resolutely have they self-identified with the man that they have half-accepted the crazy notion that the military and ‘intelligence community’ kept this information classified . . . from him.

Vanden Heuvel has it completely backwards:

The lesson; no, the message; no, um, the takeaway of the leaked documents is not: if only they knew how badly it’s going, how hard it’s going to be, then the administration would bring an end to the conflict.  Rather, the takeaway; no, the message is that even knowing how badly the war goes, they persist.  The lesson is not the Administration’s blindness, but its dogged intransigence, its total commitment to the endeavor, regardless of the means or outcome, regardless of the possibility of reward, regardless of the cost, regardless of suffering, regardless of sense and duration.  The United States has an institutional commitment to the occupation of Afghanistan.  It can’t be argued out of it.

When, by the way, was the last time your hosts engaged in armed resistance?  I know that I make it a general rule not to break out the Stinger missiles at a dinner party nor to strap dynamite to my boyfriend and send him into the dining room when the guests have stayed past their espresso.  Such would be . . . counterproductive.7

Exactly right.  



1  Quoted in Ewen MacAskill, “Barack Obama Enlists Afghan War Leaks in Support of Policy Switch,” Guardian (UK), July 27, 2010.

2  Quoted in Norman Solomon, “State of Denial: After the Big Leak, Spinning for War,” TruthOut, July 28, 2010.

3  Solomon, ibid.

4  Marian Wang, “Pentagon Papers Reporter: What the WikiLeaks ‘War Logs’ Tell Us,” Pro Publica: Journalism in the Public Interest, July 26, 2010.

5  For sources and elaboration, see Paul Street, “Obama’s West Point War Speech: A Quick Response,” ZNet, December 3, 2009; and Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2010), chapter two.

6  Katrina vanden Huevel, “Could WikiLeaks Offer a Way Out of War?” Washington Post, July 27, 2010.

7  IOZ, “If Only He Knew,” Who Is IOZ?, July 28, 2010.

Paul Street will speak on his new book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Powerat the restaurant and bookstore Busboys and Poets (5th and K, 1025 5th St. NW, Washington, DC) on Monday, August 16th, 2010 6:30 to 8 PM.  Street will speak at the Wooden Shoe Bookstore (704 South St., Philadelphia, PA) on Tuesday, August 17th at 7 PM and at Bluestockings Bookstore (172 Allen St., NYC, NY — in the Lower East Side of Manhattan) on Wednesday, August 18 at 7 PM.  For future dates in Springfield, New Jersey, and Boston and for information on how to help support Paul’s book tour, see <>.

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