Obama’s Debord-ian Dog Whistle

I have previously suggested that in not releasing the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, President Obama was deliberately seeking to break out of the logic of bin Laden and the Bush Administration’s war of dueling spectacles (“World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton, 20 October 2011). I made this suggestion somewhat farcically. Has President Obama set himself against the spectacle? Effectively he may have — and that’s intriguing in itself — but has he done so consciously, intentionally? Has the President read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle? Or does the President have some ideas whose provenance is unknown to him? Are French Marxist theories of capitalist propaganda and false consciousness influencing U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism? It doesn’t even rise to the level of surmise.

But then last night I was listening again to then candidate Senator Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech (Wikipedia | YouTube), delivered in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy (National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 March 2008), where he says the following about racial controversies (starting at 28:56 in the video):

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the OJ trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

Two points:

  1. In common use, the word “spectacle” is an indefinite noun. People who aren’t invoking the theories of Debord would say, “We can tackle race only as a spectacle”. “Spectacle” used without an article, or “the spectacle”, with an article indicating a proper noun, are how people with Debord on the brain use it.

  2. As a brief explanation of the machinations of the spectacle, one that appeals to common language and experience, this is not bad.

At this point I think it is within the realm of possibility that President Obama has consciously and intentionally set himself against the spectacle. Of course President Obama is not a radical, but a meliorist and an incrementalist (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”). He is not about to explode the spectacle tomorrow. Audacity is apparently formal; it is for hope, ambition, dreams. Small opportunistic (almost Clintonian) victories are for real-world policy. But I think when the opportunity presents itself, President Obama does seek to reject and counteract the logic of the spectacle.

I don’t want to throw fuel on the right-wing illuminati — this is like my own little D’Souza-esque conspiracy — but how strange would it be if President Obama were engaged in covert acts of sublimated high philosophy, if the ideas of Guy Debord were actually influencing the President’s thinking about strategy in the war on terrorism and cultural narratives in media? If the U.S. had actually, explicitly (at least in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief) broken with the logic of dueling spectacles, to — I don’t know what — something else, it would as if Nietzsche’s “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” (Beyond Good and Evil §285) were playing out right here in the Capital today.

World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton

The holiday from history ends and the war on terrorism begins with the spectacle of September 11th. The Bush administration decided to make dueling spectacles of the war on terrorism when it opened the war on Iraq with “shock and awe”. The logical conclusion of the first major arc of the war on terrorism would have been the spectacle of Osama bin Laden’s bloodied corpse, but President Obama decided to deny the world that spectacle. That bookend to the war on terrorism would remain unconceptualized in the spectacle (Barack Obama is “the first Jewish president“).

What we got instead of the image of the death of Osama bin Laden was the image of the death of Osama bin Laden reflected on the face of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton witnessing the death of Osama bin Laden, Situation Room, the White House, 1 May 2011

Secretary Clinton has tried to fob this image off, saying, “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.”

Is this the Clintonian reflex, or Obama’s postmodern commitment to non-representation and non-meaning? Or maybe it was a yawn?

She should own this moment: it’s one of the most amazing and iconic images to come out of the war on terrorism. And she is turning the office of Secretary of State into the U.S.’s emotional barometer.

Today, when Libyan rebels managed to locate and kill Muammar Gaddafi, one of the first vectors of this story was when, while preparing for a series of pool interviews in Kabul, Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton was handed a BlackBerry with the news. Again, no image of the event, but the event reflected in Hillary Clinton’s reaction.

Hillary Clinton reacts to news of Muammar Gaddafi's capture, Kabul, Afghanistan, 20 October 2011

It’s like world history meets Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (Wikipedia | YouTube).

Also of note, that baby bump just over Secretary Clinton’s right shoulder is Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, wife of Anthony Weiner.

The Fourth Generation Warfare Reason to Ditch the “War on Terrorism” Analogy

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

After the underwear bomber incident, all together too many people are talking about how Yemen is now the central front of the war on terrorism and preemptive action is necessary and if Yemen’s dysfunctional government can’t do what needs to be done then the U.S. should step in and do it for them (as usual, Senator Lieberman can be counted on as the go-to guy for idiotic pronouncements here). To me the events of recent days really show what’s wrong with the U.S. reaction being dominated by the notion of a “war on terrorism,” and the superiority of the strategy of treating terrorism as an issue of law enforcement as enunciated by, among others, John Kerry throughout 2004.

What we’re facing is the classic squeezing a balloon problem: the United States can deploy 112,000 solders to Iraq and another 98,000 to Afghanistan, and thousands more throughout Central and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands and the terrorists just pick up their laptops, sell their Range Rovers and relocate their operation to the Horn of Africa, or the outer reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile the U.S. is stuck for the next decade in whatever country owing to the weight of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tones of heavy metal.

We are engaged in a fourth generation-type struggle with an opponent employing the classical tactics of asymmetric warfare. The object for the opponent on the presumptively disadvantaged side of the asymmetry is to adopt a strategy whereby the seeming advantages of the preponderant power are transformed into weaknesses. The war on terrorism is a contest of strategic dexterity and in this case the very weight, size and overwhelming capability of the U.S. military has become its greatest liability.

The game that has been played by al Qaeda et al. is that of miring the U.S. in regions of declining strategic importance. Terrorists are Lilliputians and the U.S. Gulliver. Only in this story Gulliver ties himself down. The Lilliputians only have to indicate where he should sink the stakes and he applies the lashes to himself.

While I am deeply skeptical of black ops, secret programs, plausible deniability, assassination, et cetera, I generally agree with the idea that the only time counter-terrorist actions should make the news is when something has gone wrong. The Predator drone and special forces operations that are being conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems correct in conception, if still problematic in execution, to me. And of course this level of militarization is still awfully high. The FBI is the U.S. government agency with the largest presence abroad after the Pentagon and the State Department. Treasury is quickly following suite. Counter-terrorism should only become subject to special forces means under extreme circumstances. The rest of the time it should be dealt with by the various legal investigative agencies.

Whatever the case, our reaction to terrorism needs to be in kind: nimble, dynamic, human not territory oriented, multifaceted.

A strategic studies acquaintance commented the other day that he can’t wait for the reigning generation of the foreign policy establishment to retire, because they are a bunch of Cold War relics, mired in the mindset of a bygone era. The idea of stateless actors is beyond their comprehension. In this regard one of the most seminal moments in the U.S. reaction to mass-casualty terrorism was Paul Wolfowitz’s 13 September 2001 press conference, where he said the following (DoD News Briefing, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA):

I think one has to say it’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that’s why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It’s not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of.

I believe that in some ultimate sense Paul Wolfowitz has been right about Islamic extremism: that it is not our war, that we cannot fight it, that it is not a war that can be won in the realm of strictly materialist forces, but that it is a struggle of ideology, that it can only be settled among those most immediately concerned, that the most the U.S. can do is indirectly effect this outcome through the opening of a space where moderate, modernist, liberal Islam can flourish. This was Secretary Wolfowitz’s idea for Iraq: that it would become the Islamic “city on the hill.” That he could simultaneously have been so wrong makes Paul Wolfowitz one of the tragic figures of the post-11 September period.

But this idea, that states and territory are what is important, this was the commanding idea of the early Bush administration. But the strategy of militarily occupying every square mile of lawless territory on the Earth and engaging in nation building in every failed state is beyond our capability. It is how the strength of a great power will be sapped.

Playing Into bin Laden’s Hands

Last week President Bush (remember him?) took his message somewhere that people might listen without creating a media spectacle, the Israeli Knesset, where he made his now infamous, implicit criticism of Barack Obama (“President Bush Addresses Members of the Knesset,” The Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, 15 May 2008):

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

Yes, yes, appeasement has been discredited, except in all those other instances where its opposite, belligerence or intransigence has been discredited too (“The Contradictory Lessons of the Twentieth Century, smarties, 28 August 2004). The fact is that there is no diplomatic panacea — firm resolve always works — and what is required is that ever so subtle virtue, judgment, exactly what this administration has been lacking.

This all reminds me of the passage from Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine in which he describes the assessment of the CIA as to the meaning of Osama bin Laden’s 29 October 2004 statement , made just days before the 2004 presidential election:

Inside of the CIA, of course, the analysis moved on a different track. They had spent years, as had a similar bin Laden unit at FBI, parsing each expressed word of the al Qaeda leader and his deputy, Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons — and those reasons are debated with often startling depth inside the organization’s leadership. …

Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.

At the five o’clock meeting, once various reports on latest threats were delivered, John McLaughten opened the issue with the consensus view: “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.” (p. 335-336)

The fact is that the policies of President Bush and his administration have been an irreplaceable gift to al Qaeda. As Osama bin Laden himself said in the afore mentioned statement,

[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note …

Osama bin Laden essentially told the world that he loves George Bush for playing right into al Qaeda’s hands.

Barack Obama and the left more generally have responded to the President’s implicit criticism, but it’s been entirely meta. It’s beyond the bounds of fair politics, the President shouldn’t make such criticisms while abroad, etc. The left should deal squarely with this issue. Appeasement — were it even true — would be one thing, but George Bush is America’s gift to Osama bin Laden. Senator Obama is not bin Laden’s candidate: George W. Bush is. For seven years now the West has danced to bin Laden’s tune. On 20 January 2009 that ends.

Some Other Books that Bush Should Read

The White House press office and has periodically made it known what books the President is reading. On a few occasions even the President himself has staged a mini publicity stunt to show off the same, for instance when he very deliberately paraded around with a copy of Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias to demonstrate his low opinion of the press or Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command to signal to the military that the administration wasn’t about to be pushed around by a bunch of generals with their dictates of military requirement.

I am currently reading Adam Zamoyski’s Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that a work was not written with an eye to current events. And sometimes they are. Robert Massie has specifically said that he wrote Dreadnought, his book about how the naval arms race between Britain and Germany precipitated the First World War, in part to illustrate the dangers of the Regan nuclear arms buildup.

When I read passages like the following, it is hard not to think that Mr. Zamoyski doesn’t have a certain contemporary swashbuckling world leader in mind. With the La Grande Armée fully ensconced in Moscow, harried by marauding Cossacks, Napoleon contemplates his next move:

Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong, and that Caulaincourt had been right all along. But he did not like to admit it. And he recoiled from the only logical next step, which was to withdraw. He liked neither the idea of retreat, which went against his instincts, nor the implications of such a withdrawal on the political climate in Europe. He also had an extraordinary capacity for making himself believe something just be decreeing it to be true. “In many circumstances, to wish something and believe it were for him one and the same thing,” in the words of General Bourienne. So he hung on, believing that Alexander’s nerve would break or that his own proverbial luck would come up with something.

He had studied the weather charts, which told him that it did not get really cold until the beginning of December, so he did not feel any sense of urgency. What he did not realize, in common with many who do not know those climates, was just how sudden and savage changes of temperature can be, and how temperature is only one factor, which along with wind, water and terrain can turn nature into a viciously powerful opponent.

The unusually fine weather at the beginning of October contributed to his complacency. He teased Caulaincourt, accusing him of peddling stories about the Russian winter invented to “frighten children.” “Caulaincourt thinks he’s frozen already,” he quipped. He kept on saying that it was warmer than Fontainebleau at that time of year, and dismissed suggestions that the army provide itself with gloves and items of warm clothing. …

With every day Napoleon spent in Moscow, the harder it was to leave without loss of face, and the usually decisive Emperor became immobilized by the need to choose between an unappealing range of options on the one hand, and a stubborn belief in his lucky star on the other. He fell into the trap of thinking that by delaying a decision he was leaving his options open. In fact, he only really had one option, and he was reducing the chances of its success with every day he delayed. (pp. 351-352)

For the outcome of this story, one need only consult Charles Minard’s famous chart portraying the destruction of the French Army. Substitute a few terms and this sounds strikingly like the current situation of the United States in the Middle East. For those of you who object to the comparison in the first sentence of the excerpt, “Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong,” I ask, do you really think that CIA director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group that the “instability” in Iraq seems “irreversible” and that he could not “point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around,” (Woodward, Bob, “CIA Said Instability Seemed ‘Irreversible’,” Washington Post, 12 July 2007, p. A1) but that he has been telling the President in his daily briefings that everything is coming up roses? President Bush has been told the situation in Iraq, and in some dark corner of his mind he knows what it is — altogether too often one can see this in his broken, impromptu remarks to the press where his pleading, too strident by half tone seems addressed as much to himself as anyone else in the room. He just doesn’t have the strength of mind — and that is what it takes — to come to terms with the truth.