Robert Jensen: Liberal Icons and the Problem of Bipartisan Empire-Building


Richard Moore

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Liberal Icons and the Problem of Bipartisan Empire-Building
by Robert Jensen
February 19, 2007

Remarks to the fourth ³Last Sunday² community gathering
 in Austin, TX, February 18, 2007.

In a political culture defined by a centrist-to-reactionary political spectrum, 
Paul Wellstone was a breath of fresh air when he brought his progressive 
politics to the US Senate in 1991. His death in 2002 robbed the country of a 
humane voice on the national political stage.

I lived for a time in Minnesota and followed Wellstone¹s career closely. The 
last time I saw him speak was December 1998 when I was part of a peace group 
that conducted a sit-in at his office to protest his support for a US attack on 
Iraq and force a meeting to challenge the former anti-war activist¹s hawkish 
turn. Yes, that¹s right -- a group sat in at Wellstone¹s St. Paul office when he
supported Bill Clinton¹s illegal 1998 cruise missile attack on Iraq, which was 
the culmination of a brutal and belligerent US policy during that Democratic 

It might seem odd to recall such a small part of contemporary history when the 
United States is mired in a full-scale occupation of Iraq, but there¹s an 
important lesson in this little bit of history -- one that¹s is often difficult 
for many liberals and Democrats to face:

Illegal and immoral US aggression is, and always has been, a bipartisan affair. 
Democrats and liberals are responsible for their share of the death, 
destruction, and misery caused by US empire-building along with Republicans and 
conservatives. I mention the Wellstone incident not to suggest he and George W. 
Bush are equally culpable, but to make the point that even politicians with 
Wellstone¹s progressive politics can be twisted by the pathology of power and 

Precisely because we face such crucial policy choices in Iraq, the Middle East, 
and the world, we must remember that while W. and the neocons are a problem, 
they are not the problem. Sweep this particular gang of thugs and thieves out of
office, and Š what? A kindler-and-gentler imperial policy designed by Democrats 
is still an imperial policy, and imperial policies always have the same result: 
The suffering of millions -- others that are too often invisible to us -- in 
support of policies that protect the affluence of Š us.

Name a politician at the national level today who has even come close to 
acknowledging that painful reality. Go ahead, think about it for a minute -- I 
can wait.

I¹m reminded of a meeting that a group of Austin activists had with our 
congressman, liberal Democrat Lloyd Doggett, as part of a national grassroots 
organizing effort in the late 1990s to end the punishing embargo on Iraq that 
the Clinton administration imposed for eight long years. Those economic 
sanctions were killing an estimated 5,000 Iraqi children a month, and it¹s 
likely that as many as a million people died during the Clinton years as a 
result of this aspect of the US policy of dominating the politics of the region.
We asked Doggett -- who had courageously spoken out against US aggression in the
past -- to challenge this policy of his Democratic leadership, which he declined
to do. One of us mentioned our opposition to this in the context of a larger 
critique of US empire. Doggett¹s response: ³That was never my analysis.²

In other words, even though the United States has been pursuing imperial 
policies since it was founded -- first on the continent it eventually conquered 
and later around the world -- that wasn¹t his analysis. In other words, his 
analysis was apparently to deny the reality of how the United States became the 
most powerful nation-state in the history of the world. In other words, his 
analysis required obscuring difficult truths, which might be called a . . . I¹ll
leave that sentence for you to complete.

Again, my purpose in pointing this out is not to suggest that there is no 
difference in the policies of Doggett and Bush, but rather to point out the 
disease at the heart of conventional politics in the United States: The 
willingness to lie about the history and contemporary policies that have made us
the most affluent society in the history of the world.

The political elites of the United States of America are united in their 
acceptance of these historical fabrications and contemporary obfuscations. 
Whatever their particular policy proposals, they all lie about the nature of the
system that has produced US power and affluence. They all invoke mythical 
notions of the fundamental decency of the United States. And because of that, 
they all are part of the problem.

Here¹s a gentle corrective: People can be decent, and many in the United States 
-- just as everywhere in the world -- are incredibly decent, but no imperial 
nation-state has ever had any fundamental decency. The rich First World nations 
of this world got rich through violence and theft. That doesn¹t mean there¹s 
nothing positive about the US system, but is simply a reminder that if we start 
with a lie, we end up telling lots of lies and doing lots of damage.

So, let¹s tell the truth, not only about our political opponents but about our 
alleged allies. Let¹s tell the truth about the so-called ³human rights² 
president, Jimmy Carter, a man who has accomplished some good things since 
leaving office and lately has been brave in standing up to critics who denounce 
him for telling part of the truth about the Israel/Palestine conflict (the part 
that ignores his own contributions while in office to the entrenchment of 
Israeli power and control, and hence to contemporary policy failures).

But Jimmy Carter as president -- the person he was when he held power -- was a 
person who backed the brutal rule of the Shah of Iran and, after the Iranian 
people has overthrown that dictatorship, allowed the shah to come to the United 
States. Carter continued to support and arm the military dictatorship of 
Indonesia through the worst of the genocidal atrocities in its illegal 
occupation of East Timor. Not exactly human-rights kinds of policies.

Nor was a concern for human rights in evidence in Carter¹s policy toward El 
Salvador. By coincidence, yesterday (February 17) was the 27th anniversary of a 
letter that Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote to Carter, pleading with him to 
support human rights by ending US funding and arms transfers to the 
authoritarian government of El Salvador. Romero wrote to Carter that ³instead of
favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government¹s 
contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted
on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their 
most basic human rights.² Carter¹s response was to continue support for the 
brutal military dictatorship that put guns in the hands of death squads, 
including one that would assassinate Romero a month later.

And then there is the famous ³Carter Doctrine² proclaimed in his 1980 State of 
the Union address, in which he made ³absolutely clear² his position on the 
oil-rich region: ³An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian
Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United 
States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, 
including military force.²

In other words: Control over the flow of Middle East oil must remain in US 
hands. Hmm, does that seem familiar? There was, of course, no outside force 
attempting to gain control of the region. But plenty of forces within the region
-- then and now -- have wanted to break decades of US domination, and those 
forces have been the real targets of the doctrine of Carter, and every other 
post-WWII president before and since. While the primary responsibility for the 
mess we have created in Iraq should be laid on the doorstep of Bush and the 
neocons, there¹s a lot of responsibility left to go around.

Let me be clear one more time: I am not saying that there is no difference 
between Paul Wellstone, Lloyd Doggett, Jimmy Carter on one hand, and George W. 
Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell on the other. There is, and sometimes those 
differences make a difference.

But ask yourself: Are the victims of these bipartisan policies around the world 
likely to be so concerned about the differences? When Lloyd Doggett and many 
other Democrats in Congress were supporting Clinton¹s sanctions policy -- fully 
aware that children in Iraq were dying by the thousands due to a lack of clean 
water, medical supplies, and adequate nutrition -- should we have expected those
children to be grateful that the Democrats had a better record on the minimum 
wage? When Jimmy Carter shipped weapons for death squads in El Salvador, should 
the campesinos murdered with those weapons have been grateful that Carter wasn¹t
as reactionary as the Reagan gang that would come next?

Yes, Paul Wellstone was in many ways an inspirational progressive figure at a 
time of right-wing backlash, and he often was politically courageous. But if we 
ignore the ways that politicians -- even the best of them -- can come to accept 
the illusions of the powerful that so often lead to pathological delusions and 
disastrous policies, how can a peace-and-justice movement hope to hold power 

I¹m not arguing for a holier-than-thou purism on all doctrine at all times; we 
have to be strategic in offering support to politicians with whom we inevitably 
will have some disagreements. Instead, I¹m arguing for an honest assessment of 
politicians, and of ourselves. If we are willing to excuse so quickly the 
pro-imperial policies of our so-called progressive leaders, might that be in 
part because we haven¹t broken with the imperial mindset ourselves?

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan crumble under the weight of this imperial 
madness, we owe it to the people there not only to critique the policies of the 
psychotically self-righteous madmen of the Bush administration, and not only to 
point out that the current Democratic leadership is too timid in its opposition 
to these wars. We owe it to Iraqis and Afghans -- and to all the people living 
in places that our empire targets -- to critique the allegedly more humane and 
liberal face of empire.

If we look in the mirror, whose face is that?

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and
a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of 
The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the 
Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books). He can be 
reached at •••@••.•••. This article is based on remarks to the 
second "Last Sunday" community gathering in Austin, TX, December 29, 2006.

Other Recent Articles by Robert Jensen

* Last Sunday: What to Do With/About White Folks?
* The Problem With Solutions
* Saying Goodbye to My Fargo Accent
* Last Sunday: Digging In and Digging Deep
* Opportunities Lost: When Bullies Derail Dialogue, We All Lose
* Pornographic Query: Is a DP Inherently Sexist?
* The 2006 Elections and the Coming Train Wreck
* The Consequences of the Death of Empathy
* Propriety and Paranoia in the Empire
* The Other 9/11 Tragedy: The Road Not Taken

* Iranian President¹s Attack on Academics Should Sound Familiar in the US

* Getting Cognitive: The Limits of George Lakoff¹s Politics
* Florida¹s Fear of History: New Law Undermines Critical Thinking
* Attacking Iran: Bad Policy is a Bipartisan Affair
* The Four Fundamentalisms and the Threat to Sustainable Democracy
* Why Leftists Mistrust Liberals

* ³Crash² and the Self-Indulgence of White America with Robert Wosnitzer

* Why I am a Christian (sort of)

* The Failure of Our First Amendment Success: Dealing with the Death of 

* "Dangerous" Academics: Right-wing Distortions about Leftist Professors

* MLK Day: Dreams and Nightmares
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* The 1st Amendment's Assembly and Petition Clauses -- Eviscerated by Big Money?

* Give Thanks No More: It¹s Time for a National Day of Atonement

* Abe Osheroff: On the Joys and Risks of Living Authentically in the Empire

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* From Hiroshima to Iraq and Back with Sharon Weiner

* Demonizing News Media is Attempt to Divert Attention from Policy Failures

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* Condi Rice Wouldn't Admit Mistakes

* Former President Bush Involved with Donation to Group with Terrorist 

* Bush's Nuclear Hypocrisy
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* New Purported Bush Tape Raises Fear of New Attacks
* General Boykin¹s Fundamentalist View of the Other
* Just the (Documented) Facts, Ma'am
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* Media Criticism of Iraq Coverage Reveals Problems with Journalists' Conception
of News

* Embedded Reporters Viewpoint Misses Main Point Of War
* Fighting Alienation in the USA
* Where's The Pretext? Lack of WMD Kills Case for War
* For Self-Determination in Iraq, The U.S. Must Leave
* The Images They Choose, and Choose to Ignore
* Embedded Media Give Up Independence
* On NPR, Please Follow the Script

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