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New orders

By Hamish Ford - posted Friday, 6 January 2012

He came and was adored – for the effortless celebrity charisma, erudite language, gentle delivery and dulcet tones. Yet the President of the USA's much-praised speech to parliament in November was in essence very similar to his predecessor's vastly more controversial address in 2003. In fact, throughout the 27-hour circus of his visit Obama delivered a jarringly blunt message that could be more dangerous for Australia and the region than Bush's cartoon cowboy act.

With Obama, a velvety and seductive glove covers the always-impatient iron fist of empire. He 'remains a popular figure on the international stage', Tony Jones assured us on Lateline, disavowing actual global opinion. Polls now show that in the Middle East the US has on Obama's watch become even more hated than under Bush.

Nothing substantive changed with his historic 2008 victory, nor did the first African-American President promise anything concrete beyond a content-less 'hope'. Increasing Bush's drone attacks on Pakistan days after taking office, despite repeated requests to desist by the elected government, three years later Obama was again being rebuked by foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar for cross-border NATO airstrikes killing 26 people. Earlier this year he sent a secret 'commando unit' (if sent by our enemies, the media would rightly report it as a death squad) into Pakistan – technically invading and potentially starting war with a nuclear power – to carry out an international murder before dumping the body at sea. All such actions are illegal under international law but go unmentioned because they are simply the norm. Despite such brazen acts that would lead to serious condemnation or legal action if performed by anyone else (except Israel), in our Parliament Obama lectured on the importance of having a global system 'where rules are clear and every nation plays by them.'


Far from playing by global rules or enacting hope, Obama has expanded Bush's worst excesses. He escalated the violence in Afghanistan (2010 was the worst year for civilian deaths), stayed in Iraq, continued the 'rendition' torture program, wrote into law an extension of the draconian Patriot Act, and – despite his having made a rare distinct promise – failed to close Guantanamo Bay, where Julian Assange may yet end up thanks to his own government's shocking abdication of basic responsibility as a result of absolute obsequience to US power. Most controversially at home, Obama presided over the largest public-to-private transfer in history with the big banks bailout, revealing 'the American dream' as socialism for the rich and brutal deregulated hell for everyone else.

The media virtually never mentions that it is Obama's nation, not Hu Jintao's, with military deployed in more than 150 countries and more international bases than anyone in history – probably now over 1,000. We are not 'Caught between two giants' (the now common Australian media cliché) when one has all the guns. The dangerous ratcheting up of the China threat in Australia began with our Mandarin-fluent and presumed 'Sinofile' former Prime Minister's endorsement – against other alternatives – of the 2009 Defence White Paper. Australia would now seek to expand its military, building 12 new submarines ranging as far as the South China Sea. Important strategic and military figures in Beijing and also Canberra were dismayed, fearing Rudd had essentially threatened a new arms race.

Obama's whistlestop visit announcing the Darwin military base housing 2,500 US Marines and myriad war machines heralded more serious escalation. Warning China so forcefully from within our allegedly independent parliament, Obama did much more than talk up the 'special relationship'. Seducing Australia's elected representatives and national media with that photogenic smile, 'the President' did nothing less than rub our noses in the real relationship Australia has with its great 'friend', telling an uncritical outpost of US power it is needed for yet another campaign of containment.

Meanwhile, in a typically folksy Lateline interview Ambassador Jeff Bleich claimed the US merely saw China as a 'partner'. Earlier in the year he rejected with a straight face on Q&A that his nation has an empire. How then to explain Obama and Hillary Clinton gravely intoning 'We are an Asia Pacific power and we are here to stay'? These are the stark utterances of a global empire that has carried out over 120 interventions and invasions of other countries since 1945. Killing Hope is the appropriately un-Obama title of the definitive book recounting this ugly history by former State department insider William Blum.

Be it Obama and Gillard or Clinton and Rudd, 'common values' is the constant refrain justifying Australia's yet further military integration with the greatest power in history. But do we really share or aspire to the values it practises?

Americans enjoy theoretical freedom of speech, but the Supreme Court protects rights for private corporations far beyond those enjoyed by human beings. Since the 1970s real wages have stagnated and in manufacturing areas sharply declined, to the point of starting to be roughly competitive with China. Wealth disparity has skyrocketed, and the country's educational standards lag behind Western Europe and large parts of Asia. Travelling to a major US city (rich in terms of elite private wealth), you see shocking levels of poverty and lack of basic services, while large swathes of the former industrial belt look like the third world.


Most infamously, instead of a healthcare system the US has an unregulated scam run by big pharmaceutical companies whose generous donations to Obama in 2008 ensure that what most Americans have long wanted remains unoffered: the public system enjoyed everywhere else in the developed world. (Every major political party in the West outside the US would have rejected as far too right wing the 'socialist' plan Obama eventually got through Congress.)

Its endless rhetoric notwithstanding, the USA is arguably the least democratic society and state in the Western world. Run by a clique of corporate interests and increasingly the financial sector, the system offers voters a choice of personality over genuine policy difference. Polls show a sizeable majority of the population disagree fundamentally with both major parties on important issues such as the environment, Israel/Palestine, the Cuba blockade, Iran's right to nuclear power, corporate taxes and the Wall St bailout. Although hardly unfamiliar in Australia and elsewhere, this is 'democracy deficit' of unmatched, epic proportions.

With a massive 80% of the US population saying the country is 'going in the wrong direction', the Occupy movement gives voice to long-brewing anger. Far from 'not standing for anything', its democratic threat of a radical shakeup of the social contract between rulers and ruled – which enjoys twice the public support of the Tea Party – is taken very seriously indeed by those that matter, as seen in the escalating and increasingly orchestrated violence used by police against peaceful protesters. In both cases the only surprise is that it took so long.

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About the Author

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle.

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