Well into President Obama’s second term it’s nearly impossible to avoid the fact that he is a President willing to endorse any crime, no matter how egregious, insofar as it accords with dominant strategic and political interests. Obama’s undivided support for the incremental genocide, as Ilan Pappe called it, in Gaza is just the latest example. But even before Netanyahu embarked on this recent killing spree, Obama was exonerating Bush administration torturers, NSA criminals, Egyptian killers, and a long list of others. The ideological justifications deployed to absolve the actual perpetrators of these crimes is of particular significance for those eager to gain a clearer understanding of how power operates. One domain where Obama’s ideological position is easy to perceive is when it comes to the crimes of state-capitalism, specifically when the victims of these crimes are Black.
Whenever Obama speaks before a Black audience he must remind them that they have “no excuses” for their position in life, the assumption being that any critique of the real structural violence perpetrated to marginalize and oppress the Black community is illegitimate. When Obama gave a speech at Morehouse University USA Today reported “President Obama on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College, the country’s pre-eminent historically black college, there is ‘no time for excuses’ for this generation of African-American men and that it was time for their generation to step up professionally and in their personal lives.” In his 2011 speech at an event hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Obama told his audience to “Stop complaining, stop grumbling,” and “stop crying”, sentiments which received applause from the predominantly Black audience (unsurprising). Now, in his latest iteration of this message, the Guardian reports “The US president has told African leaders to look inward for solutions to the continent’s economic problems instead of making ‘excuses’ based on a history of dependence and colonization.” Describing the horrific legacy of European colonialism, Obama went on to say “OK, we didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure that we’re not making excuses for not going forward” (note how Obama portrays the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized as a “deal” and not a form of oppression.)
Recall this “look forward not backwards” mantra was the same mantra that President Obama invoked to exonerate the Bush administration for their global torture campaign, a decision that journalist Glenn Greenwald described as “a new violation of the law separate from the original acts of torture.” Therefore, it’s only predictable that Obama would use the exact same rationale he used to justify the CIA’s torture of Arabs across the world to justify the physical, economic, and cultural torture of colonialism perpetrated against Africans throughout history. These convenient myths are designed to whitewash atrocities and neglect addressing the enormous debt “western civilization” owes to the so-called third world. Incidentally, the Guardian notes that Obama’s message to African leaders was “a rejection of comments last month from the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.” Mbasogo “said western neocolonial domination of Africa had impeded development.” He also “blasted what he said were excessively low exchange rates, problems with the pricing of natural resources, and western-imposed barriers to international trade.”
Apart from these economic grievances is the role the US is playing in the militarization of Africa. Writing for Tom Dispatch, Nick Turse reported that the US government “extensively mentored the military officer who overthrew Mali’s elected government in 2012,” and “trained a Congolese commando battalion implicated by the United Nations in mass rapes and other atrocities during that same year.” The crimes in the Eastern Congo meet every conceivable definition of genocide yet Obama pretends that the US is blameless for the pure havoc across the African continent. Since the US Africa Command was established in 2008 there has been a “217% increase in operations, programs, and exercises …” It’s precisely these programs of militarization that prevent the implementation of social policies that Obama disingenuously calls for. Also obscured by Obama’s apologetics for empire is the severe environmental damage that US policies will bring down on the African continent. In the 2012 Climate Conference in Rio Friends of the Earth Chair Nnimmo Bassey remarked that it was “really shocking that President Obama is not in Rio, because this conference is set to prepare the platform for the direction of development, sustainable development, that the world is going to take over the next decades.” Just three years prior at the Copenhagen Climate Summit Obama voted against 192 other countries and rejected the emission standards mandated by the Kyoto Protocols.
Bassey concluded “The Millennium Development Goals have not been attained. And by 2015, … the whole thing will expire. And it’s mainly because finance is not being made available. And yet, rich nations are spending billions of dollars, without thinking, on a warfare and destructive activities, whereas what we need now is to rescue the planet.” These astute observations are unmentioned in Obama’s defense of power. Perhaps he sees Bassey’s commentary as another example of a Black man “complaining”, “grumbling”, and “crying.” More “grumbling” was likely audible after Obama’s DOJ gave British banking giant HSBC a mere slap on the wrist instead of prison time after they were found to have laundered billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups affiliated with al Qaeda. Attorney General Eric Holder rationalized this decision by saying “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” Unlike the systemic critiques that Obama ridicules, these actual excuses for wrongdoing are legitimate thanks to the perpetrator’s appropriately sized bank account, ideologically assisted, in no small measure, by the right pigmentation.
Underlying all of this is a presidential administration religiously committed to making excuses for the powerful at the expense of the powerless. From blaming the refusal to close Guantanamo on Congressional intransigence, to escalating massive deportations based on the requirements of “the law”, to absolving criminals in the financial industry under the doctrine of “too big to fail” this reality is glaringly obvious. As Dr. Cornel West perceptively stated, Obama’s function is to serve as “the friendly face of American empire.” And this “friendly face” endures despite the vast wealth gap between America’s Black and White population (Pew Research places average wealth of white families at 20 times that of the average Black family), the explosion of racial profiling and murder by the police (re: the murder of Eric Garner), and a media industry that constructs the necessary narratives to conceal this institutional racism from serious public scrutiny. Maybe if the African leaders assembled to listen to Obama magically morphed into white Wall Street Executives they would not be expected to discard their “excuses.” But until then it looks like they will have to suffer the lecturing of this “friendly” leader.
With Liberty and Justice for Some by Glenn Greenwald