How do you judge a State of the Union speech that begins with a lie?
There was any number of anecdotes or stories with which President Obama could have begun his talk to the nation. But he decided to begin with the most overused trick in any leader’s rhetorical arsenal – to celebrate the military.
“We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.”
Does the President really believe that the United States is more respected around the world because of its military activities? Did no one point out to him that the morning of his speech, the marine sergeant who led the 2005 assault on Haditha that killed 24 Iraqi civilians received no jail time for his action, same as the seven other American soldiers who were part of the raid? As the LA Times reported in the wake of the decision, “The lack of trial convictions in the Haditha case is likely to further inflame anti-US sentiment in Iraq, as well as fuel criticism by some legal analysts of the 6-year-long investigation and prosecution.”
We can thank Obama for completing the withdrawal of most troops from Iraq – he carefully said that there were no troops “fighting in Iraq”, but there are still thousands of Americans there, training Iraqis and otherwise engaged in security-related activities. But where is the apology for a war he owes his rise to power on condemning?
It’s true the President was speaking to an American audience in an election year, but if there was ever a time to take stock of American actions and own up to the “blood and treasure” – not just American, but much more Iraqi – that was lost on an illegal war that permanently damaged the US’ position and respect in the world, this was it.
Saviour of the nation?
The army as saviour of the nation. A claim that would sound familiar to most Egyptians. In fact, in both countries the military – or rather the conglomeration of forces tying the military to leading economic actors with whom they disproportionately control their country’s political and economic life – is perhaps the single most important factor responsible for the lack of democratic accountability or sustainable and broadly distributed economic growth.
Egypt’s young revolutionaries have risked arrest, torture and death to force the army “back to the barracks”. But in the US, the uncritical celebration of the military is so strong that it clouds over its role in draining a huge share of the country’s economic lifeblood away from areas where it’s desperately needed or in fomenting precisely the kinds of wars and violence that have permanently eroded the view of the US around the world. How Egypt’s generals must envy the ease with which their American comrades ensure their continued grip on a huge share of the country’s power and wealth.
Sure, a State of the Union address, with the entire military leadership staring at you from the floor of the Congress, is not the easiest place for a President to speak truth to power. But at least he doesn’t have to provide even more cover for an institution that already holds far too much sway over the country’s politics and plays a crucial role in perpetuating the growing inequality that the President listed as among the most pressing problems facing the United States.
And yet, rather than at least beginning to talk about the need to build a post-military society, President Obama declared that “at a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.”
“Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”
Yes, imagine - a country that takes hundreds of thousands of its young men and women, puts them in harm’s way for the benefit of a small elite, doesn’t provide them with an economy that can absorb them when they’ve completed their service, doesn’t provide them with adequate healthcare, doesn’t deal with the emotional and physical costs of the violence it asks them to unleash and suffer, and thinks not a whit about the people on whom that violence is exercised.
Imagine if the US as a whole behaved even more like its military. Or, moving to the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum, think if American corporations all followed the example of Apple, today among the most profitable and powerful corporations in the world, which even as its profits have soared has squeezed its suppliers to charge even less for the products and labour they provide, and in so doing ensure that hundreds of thousands of poor workers in China continue to work for ludicrously low wages in suicide-inducing jobs all so that more Americans can buy iPhones or iPads for $5 less than they’d otherwise pay.
Whether it’s the Pentagon, Cupertino (Apple’s headquarters), or Wall Street, this kind of rapacious and often mafia-like capitalism is precisely what created, in Obama’s words, the “house of cards” that “collapsed” in 2008.
Moreover, the military in particular is characterised by the “outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits” (in the form of exorbitant and wasteful expenditures that funnel tens of billions of dollars to defence contractors for weapons and services the US doesn’t need in the first place) that the President blames for ruining the American economy.
Finding another role model
This is not to say that President Obama has not outlined many worthy goals in the State of the Union, from developing clean energy to making college educations more affordable and prosecuting financial crimes more aggressively. But the reality is that if he hopes to build a fairer, more just, equalitarian, sustainable and healthy society, the military is just about the worst model the President could follow.
Whether in Caesar’s day or our own, militaries do three things well – they kill large numbers of people, including (and often disproportionately) civilians; they arrogate an ever-increasing share of a society’s wealth to themselves and their allies; and they weaken the dynamics of accountability between rulers and ruled without which democracy cannot survive.
If Obama can’t talk openly to the American people about the reality of its military’s role in the world, both historically and today, there is almost no chance he’ll be able to shepherd the kind of transformation in the US’ political economy that he outlined, because the military has always been intimately tied to the worst excesses of capitalism and nationalism that produced precisely the collapse from which the US has yet to recover.
The reality is that the society Obama hopes to build cannot come into being without a major transformation in the role and power of its armed forces and security establishment. And if his State of the Union speech is any guide, it seems that, tragically, the President is not up to the job. And judging by the response his speech has received, it seems neither is anyone else.