Former US President Barack Obama was in South Africa last week for the centennial anniversary marking the birth of the late Nelson Mandela. Obama delivered a speech warning about encroaching authoritarianism among nations and the “rise of strongman politics”.
Coming on the heels of the summit in Helsinki between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, media reports assumed that Obama was taking a swipe at these two leaders for supposed growing authoritarianism.
Obama’s casting of the “strongman” as a foreboding enemy to democracy is a variant of the supposed threat of “populism” that Western political establishments also seem concerned about.
Trump, Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, Italy’s Salvini, Victor Orban in Hungary and Sebastian Kurz in Austria, among many others, are all lumped together as “strongman politics”, “populists” or “authoritarians”.
Here we are not trying to defend the above-mentioned political leaders or to make out that they are all virtuous democrats.
The point rather is to debunk the false narrative that there is some kind of dichotomy in modern politics between those who, on one hand, are supposedly virtuous, liberal, democratic, multilateralists, and on the other hand, the supposedly sinister “strongman”, “authoritarian”, or “populist”.
In Obama’s pompous depiction of world political trends, people like him are supposedly the epitome of a civilized, democratic legacy that is now under threat from Neo-fascists who are darkly rising to destroy an otherwise happy world order. That world order, it is presumed, was up to now guided by the magnificence of American political leadership. In short, the “Pax Americana” that prevailed for nearly seven decades following the Second World War.
Following the Helsinki summit, the Western media went full-tilt in hysterics and hyperbole.
Trump was assailed for “embracing a dictator” while repudiating Western democratic allies.
In a Washington Post article, the headline screamed: “Is Trump at war with the West?” It was accompanied by a photograph of Trump and Putin, bearing the caption: “The New Front”.
Meanwhile, a New York Times piece editorialized: “His [Trump’s] embrace of Putin is a victory dance on the Euro-American tomb.”
Another NY Times op-ed writer declared: “Trump and Putin vs. America”.
The Western establishment political and media commentary promulgates the notion that the US-led Western order is breaking down because of “populist”, “strongman” Trump. In this alleged assault on the pillars of democracy and rule of law, Trump is being aided and abetted by supposedly nasty, like-minded authoritarians like Russian leader Vladimir Putin, or other nationalistic European politicians.
The premise of this establishment narrative is that all was seemingly salubrious and convivial in the US-led order until the arrival of various renegade-type politicians, like Trump and Putin.
That premise is an absolute conceit and deception. If we look at Obama’s presidency alone, one can see how the supposed guardians of democracy and international order were the very ones who have actually done the most to decimate that order.
Obama, you will recall, was the US president who notched up seven simultaneous overseas wars conducted by American military, arguably without a shred of international legal mandate. Under international law, Obama and other senior officials in his administration should face prosecution for war crimes. He also greatly expanded the executive use of assassination with aerial drones, reckoned to have killed thousands of innocent civilians in several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, merely on the suspicion of being terrorists.
It was Obama who ramped up the covert war policy of his predecessor GW Bush in Syria, arming and directing terrorist proxies in a failed bid to overthrow the elected government of President Assad. That US-backed covert war in Syria, along with Obama’s overt regime-change war in Libya, largely contributed to the refugee crisis that has destabilized the politics of the European Union.
So here we have the supremely bitter irony. Obama now lectures audiences with his pseudo-gravitas about the specter of strongman politics and xenophobic populism, when in fact it was politicians like Obama who created much of the refugee problems that have given rise to anti-immigrant politics in Europe.
It really is a conceited delusion among US and European establishment politicians, pundits and media that somehow a once virtuous, law-abiding US-led Western order is being eroded by rabble rousers like Trump, Salvini, Orban and so on, all being orchestrated by a “strongman dictator” in the Kremlin.
For the record, Putin, the supposed “strongman” in the Kremlin, warned more than a decade ago in a seminal Munich speech that the international order was being eroded by rampant American unilateralism and disregard for law in its pursuit of illegal wars for US hegemony. That was at the height of US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which killed more than one million civilians and forced millions more into infernal destitution.
In truth, the Pax Americana that is presumed to have prevailed over the past 70 years was never about order, peace or justice in the world. The notion that the US guided the world with its “moral authority” and maintained stability throughout is one of the most fatuous delusions of modern history.
From the atomic holocaust in Japan and during subsequent decades, the US has waged wars non-stop in almost every year, whether from covert operations in Latin America and Africa, to full-on genocidal wars in Indochina. The past quarter-century has seen an acceleration and expansion of these US wars, sometimes with the assistance of its military axis in NATO, largely because Washington viewed that its license to kill for mass murder was unchecked after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is the real dynamic underlying why the Western order is now seen to be collapsing. The US and its minions among European allies have destroyed any foundations of international order from their unabated wars and campaigns of mass murder. Their corporate-capitalist plunder has eviscerated the planet.
The chaos from these wars, including economic impacts of gargantuan costs to Western populations, has created social conditions which engender politics of protest, anti-establishment, anti-austerity, anti-war, anti-immigration, and so on.
If the supposed order is shaking for the establishment political class and its flunkies like Barack Obama it is because of their own criminal depredations – depredations which have been going on for decades under the guise of Pax Americana.
The writers at Monthly Review had it so presciently right years ago, when they analyzed the actual Western order as “Pox Americana” – a diseased affliction.
This is the historical context which accounts for why US and European establishments are decrying “strongmen” and “populists”. They are essentially scapegoating others for the historic failure of institutionalized Western criminality led primarily by “democratic” regimes in Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands out as the one international leader who put a brake on the US-led criminal assault on global peace. Putin’s stand first emerged with his landmark speech in Munich in 2007, and then came into clear expression when he helped put an end to the US-led covert criminal war on Syria.
That is why Putin is so vilified and demonized by the Western establishment. The poachers have been stopped from raiding the globe, and in their exasperation, they have whipped up all sorts of disparaging epithets like “strongman” and “authoritarian”.
No one has practiced more fascist-style criminality and brutality towards law and peace than the polite-sounding pseudo-democrats who have been in office for the past 70 years in the US and Europe.
The Western political establishment and its elite-driven capitalism is rotten to the core. Always has been. Its own erosion and oozing corruption is the source of the putrid smell that it now wishes to waft away by scapegoating others.