Saturday, June 30, 2012

Barack Obama, Suzanne Nossel, and the Janissaries

Source: Wikipedia, U.S. Military bases in 2007
Empires come and empires go, and history shows that, while they try to stay, they will use a variety of methods to maintain their grip on power. Soft power, hard power or so-called “smart" power -- whatever it takes to keep tribute flowing in from the subjugated people and colonies, and to keep the populace at the heart of the empire placid.

The Ottoman empire ruled for five hundred years in the part of the world that the U.S empire has been focused on mastering for the last several decades. Southwest Asia with its fossil fuel reserves, Northern Africa with its access to that rich continent plus proximity to all that oil, and Europe on the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, a central waterway. The Ottomans losing their grip at the end of the 1800's was the catalyst for a scramble by European nations and the U.S. for the prize of the fading empire's colonies -- leading to WWI, which led to WWII, which led to the Cold War, which led to the long, long war on terror. The Ottoman decline is hardly ancient history, and I think of it from time to time as I watch the U.S. play clumsily at empire building.

To catalog the brutality and intrigue the sultans used to stay in power for so long would require a volume, if not several. For now, let's focus attention on their immensely successful scheme of co-optation. As a method of heading off the growth of viable resistance movements in the hinterlands, the Ottomans had a brilliant idea: have their provincial administrators identify promising young males in the colonies at an early age. These gifted youth would be taken from their families and communities and whisked away to the capital at Constantinople to be trained as janissaries. These were the elite palace gurads and government administrators who served at the seat of empire. They enjoyed prestige, privilege, an elegant life, and no doubt the sense of being on the inside of the most powerful empire on earth. They were playing on the A-team, as it were.

Barack Obama as the handpicked celebrity spokesman for the U.S/NATO empire would have made a fine janissary. With one African parent, he offers visible diversity. Brought up by a single mom on the white side of his family, he talks a good working class perspective. Scholarship-educated at elite private schools, he can talk that talk, too; as a tall, slim athlete, on television he looks like a star. Ditto the beautiful, brainy wife and darling children.

Elevating Obama to the highest office in the land represented a brilliant strategy on the part of the 1% doing business as the military-industrial-media complex. His position as figurehead of the Democratic Party provided unprecedented leverage to neutralize liberals and progressives while continuing to wage wars of domination across the globe. When Obama got elected, the millions who filled the streets during the Bush W. administration opposing the wars just went home. 

Relying on their sanitized information streams – NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post – they know little of drones or of Bradly Manning, nor could they care less about what he represents. The passage of the NDAA 2012, and its signing by Obama, granting the executive branch the power to indefinitely detain anyone, U.S. citizen or otherwise, indefinitely without due process or right of habeus corpus, is not even a blip on most liberal screens these day.

Many of the pacified liberal class rely on human right organizations, to which they contribute regularly to be the watchdogs. Organizations like Amnesty International rely on their robust branding as watchdogs to solicit that trust and those donations.

If you were the Ottomans and it was 2012, which threats might you be focused on neutralizing? Possibly you would be looking over your shoulder at any sector of society likely to mount a credible resistance to your legitimacy as the self-proclaimed champion of democracy, with a special emphasis on women's rights, around the globe.

Enter Suzanne Nossel. The new executive director of Amnesty- USA worked at the U.S. State department (think Hillary Clinton, Suzanne Rice, and Madeleine Albrigh)t. Before coming to AI-USA Nossel published in journals such as Foreign Affairs and Dissent, articles defending, among other things, “RECLAIMING LIBERAL INTERNATIONALISM,” “smart power,” sanctions, and the cover of diplomatic engagement prior to attacking Iran. She also gave an interview, which you can see here on Mondoweiss, debunking the Goldstone report which found human rights violations during Israel's Operation Cast Lead intensive bombing of Gaza.
Operation Cast Lead victims. Source:
Nossel's advertising campaign “NATO: keep the progress going!” ran in Chicago during the NATO summit last May, supporting a shadow summit on maintaining the alleged progress there for women, with panelists such as Albright and current State Department staff, and an open letter on the subject to presidents Obama and Karzai, signed by Albright and various other celebrity liberals.

This dovetailed nicely with NATO's official proclamation signed by heads of state in Chicago, claiming “In the ten years of our partnership the lives of Afghan men, women and children, have improved significantly in terms of security, education, health care, economic opportunity and the assurance of rights and freedoms. There is more to be done, but we are resolved to work together to preserve the substantial progress we have made during the past decade.” 

Nothing subtle about NATO's propaganda approach: tell a big lie, loudly and often. Even better, get others to tell it for you.

Nossel's role in getting Amnesty-USA to play a more subtle game providing a pretext for military force on behalf of women's rights requires a bit more investigation to be discovered. The 21st century version of janissary recruitment may very well consist of luring young, talented players like Nossel into the fold under cover of do-good, feel-good, non-profit organizations. This provides good cover and keeps lots of well-meaning people busy writing checks and feeling useful while the real powers meet discreetly in Tokyo in July to hash out who is splitting the bills for continued “development" in Afghanistan.

Development as in 300,000 Afghan troops and national police, consuming 90% of the funds flowing towards continuing to secure the graveyard of empires.

There will be many Nossels and Obamas in the years to come. Until the end of an empire there is never any shortage of fat checks for serving empire, never any shortage of ambitious young people, whether willingly or reluctantly, to play the only well-funded game in town.

A strong effort by several national organizations, including CODEPINK (of which I am a member) to pressure Amnesty-USA to re-examine their policies and Nossel's leadership, may or may not succeed. She has already made a lot of enemies recently by removing 20% of Amnesty-USA's staff, including all the regional directors, and the staff who headed up work on Guantanamo. (Word is that new hires will be working more on "women's issues.") 

Even if it does work, Nossel will find another job, and Amnesty will find another executive director, and that person may also enjoy close ties to the US government or other branches of the empire.

Why write and talk about the whitewash of U.S. global ambitions by Amnesty-USA? So a few more liberals may wake up, smell the oil burning, and turn off the propaganda feed. They would do well at that point to consider joining those who Occupy public spaces to witness for the power of non-cooperation, civil disobedience, and solidarity over prestige, creature comforts and a shiny resumé


chrisrushlau said...

Public institutions, like public broadcasting, higher institution, houses of worship, and the government itself belong to the members of the public who show up to vote, pay money in contributions, have relatives in positions of power, etc. This is one more lesson is real life. I should say, these are two more lessons.
Yet there as to be a way for a public to be disinterested, if only because graft and corruption only spread their net so widely and no further. Take colleges. For every college that takes some money and fires an independent voice, like DePaul in Chicago firing Norman Finkelstein, there are a hundred or a thousand friends and admirers who don't want to rock the boat by protesting.

chrisrushlau said...

I meant, higher education.