Monday, September 09, 2013

Obama the Hollow Imperialist

If you have spent that last week or so trying to get your head around the post-structural foreign policy actions of the Obama Administration but have yet to really see what "there" is there - you are not alone.

One of the better pieces I have read in the last day is by Daniel Greenfield. Why is it so much better? Simple my dear fellow, he begins with George Orwell; specifically his short essay, "Shooting an Elephant."
Orwell’s narrator is told of an elephant that has run riot and he dutifully follows up the report. “We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.

“Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant.”

Substitute chemical weapons for elephant and the story becomes a familiar one.

Eventually, Orwell encounters a dead body and sends back for an elephant gun while a crowd gathers behind him eagerly waiting for him to shoot the elephant. “I had halted on the road,” he writes. “As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided.”

It is likewise a serious matter to start a war. But the issue, whether with Obama’s red line or Orwell’s elephant is credibility.

“But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it.”
You need to read the whole thing - it really boils things down with a reference point that makes complete sense. It is also deliciously ironic that the best way to see the place Obama has put himself and his nation is through the place of the English Imperial enforcer - the very center of that which Obama was raised and educated to despise.
"When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," Orwell warned. In attempting to civilize the Muslim world, we have instead been forced to live by its rulers. We have not brought our order to them. They have brought their order to us.

Our interactions with them take place along the predetermined paths of their choosing. They decide what they want from us and we decide how quickly to give it to them. They decide that we should shoot the elephant and we stand around playing with the elephant gun, hoping that we can avoid this whole mess.

“And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool,” Orwell writes.

That is the admission of the moment. We must bomb Syria to avoid looking like fools.
It is not so much that bombing Syria is wrong as that the armed forces of a nation cannot and should not be in the hands of men who take serious steps without any conviction that they are doing the best thing for their country, who act only because they are told that it is expected of them. Nothing rots the morale of an army faster than such commanders and nothing destroys a nation faster than the knowledge that, in the words of Hillary Clinton, nothing truly matters but the politics of it.

If we are going to shoot elephants then we should do so for our own reasons. Once we begin shooting elephants because it is expected of us, we become little better than the masters of a hollow empire waiting to be told by the world what to do.
There is one thing we as a nation can do that Orwell's narrator didn't have the luxury of doing - we can walk away and say, "The h311 with it. If you fear the elephant so much, you take care of it. I am going home."

Orwell's narrator took an oath, we didn't. He eventually shot the elephant, and in the end - perhaps we will as well. One way or another, it really doesn't solve any problem and just reinforces the natives' reliance on, and our subserviency to, their own impotence. 

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