Last week Pomona College announced that its 2012 graduation commencement speaker will be current U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. Ambassador Munter has led a distinguished career in the U.S. foreign services, serving in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Iraq before his current assignment. I will leave it to members of the Class of 2012 to gripe about or praise this choice. In all honesty, Ambassador Munter seems like a nice guy stuck in one of the worst government positions in the world. However, with this announcement I do notice an interesting continuity with Pomona’s pick of Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano as Class of 2011’s commencement speaker and the way both are connected to Obama’s continuing pursuit of the War on Terror.
The successful assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in another covert mission that has most likely permanently soured the American-Pakistani relationship, may make up for some of the Obama administration’s military excesses abroad, but it does not excuse all of them. Since Obama entered office, the only major campaign promise that he has fulfilled connected to America’s wars abroad has been that of troop withdrawal from Iraq, though not without a significant footprint left behind. Despite the idealistic 2008 campaign, the Obama administration has increased troop levels in Afghanistan and unmanned drone missions and bombings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It has also introduced drone warfare and special-ops missions into Yemen and Somalia, provided American support for the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, established constitutional protection for executive powers of extrajudicial killing in the case of the assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and in general expanded America’s wars abroad.
This is what makes claims, incessantly leveled by Republicans such as Mitt Romney, that Obama is a traditional “liberal” weak on defense seem so ridiculous. Obama’s tack to the right has been a central concern of his progressive base since his inauguration, with many pointing out that in many cases Obama has been not so much “change” as an eerie continuity with the last 30 years of center-right governance, even under such “liberal” presidents as Bill Clinton. This points to a larger problem of the general poverty and corruption of political rhetoric. Now, if you watch any of the Republican debates for more than ten minutes you would probably come to the same conclusion, but I also want to stress that our political discourse’s portrayal of party allegiance as the only important distinction in politics is fundamentally incoherent. Aside from some social and economic issues, there has not been terribly much difference between how liberals and conservatives have run the country in the past 30 years. All have overseen, in different ways, further centralization of the state, expansion of executive powers, corporate deregulation and privatization of various forms. Indeed, the number of issues with a bipartisan consensus is rather amazing considering how often Democrats and Republicans insist on fighting each other.
It may be said that one of the many causes of Occupy Wall Street was exactly this poverty of political discourse, where people found that neither of the two parties talked about their needs in ways that felt genuine, and instead had to create a new rhetoric of the 1% vs. the 99%. Yet I’m afraid even that slogan, while rhetorically brilliant, may not be all that analytically useful. If it were only a corrupt one percent vs. the rest of America then real change wouldn’t seem so impossible. The reality of political power in America today is that it’s multifaceted. It has to do with a centralized bureaucratic state, expanding war and surveillance powers, greedy corporations and a corrupt financial sector, local police enforcement, education, health services, prisons and so many other sectors of society working with, against and in parallel with each other. There is no man behind the Wizard of Oz in the Winter Palace. America is a network of power relations, not just a simple split between the haves and the have-nots.
With this understanding it is possible to see how a Democratic president can pursue secretive war abroad and a libertarian Republican candidate can advocate for the end of all military deployments. “Liberal” and “conservative” are just no longer useful for mapping people’s actual political, economic and material interests, if they ever actually were. Thus even a “liberal” college like Pomona (thank you New York Times for the gift that keeps on giving) can have many “liberal” students, advocate for the DREAM Act that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth and still fire 17 workers in an anti-union campaign and potentially get away with it. Is Pomona College a liberal arts college with “liberal” students? Yes, but in the end that may not be saying much about where its actual interests lie. When “liberal” students and alumni pledge not to donate to “liberal” Pomona College until a labor peace is established, then all definitions may as well be up in the air.