Although the debate over Barack Obama’s national identity ended with the release of his long-form birth certificate, questions about his political identity continue. Is he a socialist, a New Deal liberal, a neoliberal, a neoconservative, a fascist, an Uncle Tom, a black nationalist, or just an unprincipled coward? Does he identify with whites, with blacks, or, as Cornel West recently claimed, with Jews? Does he want an accountable or monarchical executive branch? Does he side with investment bankers or with foreclosed mortgagers? Does he really believe in God? If so, which one?
Obama’s apparent inconsistency on several issues has helped fuel the public debate over his beliefs. But if anything in Obama’s rhetoric and policies has been constant, it is his devotion to the American empire. Throughout the presidential campaign, he promised to fulfill the mission of his heroes, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy: strengthening American influence across the world. Obama declared that, like the globalist American leaders of the past, “we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.”
Many of the candidate’s most loyal supporters were veterans of the movements against U.S. interventions in Southeast Asia and Central America, but Obama himself flatly asserted that the United States “has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known” and therefore “must lead the world, by deed and example.” Before audiences who somehow saw him as a peace candidate, he lauded Franklin Roosevelt for building “the most formidable military the world has ever seen” and promised to continue the tradition. As lifelong peaceniks plastered his face on their cars and homes and made their children march in parades for him, the candidate made it clear, in speeches, articles, and the 2008 Democratic National Platform, that if elected he would seek to enlarge the Army and Marine Corps, increase military spending, and escalate the war in Afghanistan.
Similarly, 10 months after taking office, Obama used the Nobel Peace Prize to declare war on potentially most of the world. In his October 2009 acceptance speech, the president pledged to go “beyond self-defense”—with armed intervention when necessary—anywhere “the inherent rights and dignity of every individual” are denied. Moreover, he ominously asserted that economic development “rarely takes root without security” and that “military leaders in my own country” believe that “our common security hangs in the balance” so long as climate change is not swiftly and forcefully addressed. Seldom has a political leader delivered such a strident and comprehensive call for American hegemony.
As we now know, Obama’s imperial rhetoric was not empty. With the cooperation of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, he did in fact increase Pentagon spending and expand the Army and Marine Corps to create the largest and most powerful military in the history of the world, tripled down in Afghanistan and Pakistan, launched new military operations in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, and maintained 50,000 troops in Iraq.
Clearly, anyone who saw Obama as a peacemaker simply did not listen to what he was saying. But his commitment to preserving and expanding the American empire should also be no surprise to anyone familiar with the facts of his childhood. Obama is, after all, the empire’s son. Neither New York Times reporter Janny Scott nor conservative public intellectual Dinesh D’Souza—the authors of books on Obama’s mother and father, respectively—understand this. But for anyone with knowledge of the involvement of the United States in Indonesia and Kenya during Obama’s childhood, the information Scott and D’Souza provide makes it clear that Obama is fundamentally a product of American imperialism.
Let us begin with a physical fact: Obama literally would not exist without the Central Intelligence Agency. His father and mother met at the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center, which was created by Congress and directed by CIA operatives. Obama’s father was brought to the University of Hawaii by the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation and the U.S. State Department at the request of Tom Mboya, a CIA-backed leader in the Kenyan independence movement. The dormitory where Obama Sr. lived at the East-West Center was funded by the Asia Foundation, also a creation of the CIA. According to a 1961 congressional report, the mission of the East-West Center was to inculcate pro-American sentiment in foreign students and thereby “win the battle for men’s minds.” John Witeck, a scholar who once worked at the center, has called it “a true cult of imperialism.”
More important than the CIA connections of Obama’s parents, the world in which he was raised was filled with people devoted to bringing American ways of life to the rest of the world. From Janny Scott’s biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, A Singular Woman, we learn that Obama’s mother built her life around a commitment to spreading American business practices to rural Indonesia. What we don’t learn from Scott’s book is the political context or meaning of Dunham’s state-sponsored secular missionary work.
Shortly after divorcing Obama’s father, Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, the son of an upper-class Javanese family and a lieutenant in the Indonesian army, who in 1962 was sent by the Indonesian government to study at the East-West Center. Scott tells this story but omits what made the liaison possible. At the time, the Kennedy Administration, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was sending tens of millions of dollars per year to the Indonesian government in an attempt to win its loyalty against similar bribery from the Soviet Union. Much of that funding was used to send elite Indonesian students, such as Soetoro, to American schools. In particular, to schools—such as the East-West Center—that worked directly with U.S. intelligence and security agencies and trained foreign students to teach American business methods and philosophies back in their home countries.
In 1966 Soetoro returned to Indonesia to work for the military, which had just carried out mass executions of communists and suspected communists. Scott does not mention that according to a congressional report, 1,200 of the Indonesian military officers who organized and led this purge, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, had been trained in U.S.-based counterinsurgency programs, or that many of the weapons used in the killings were supplied by Washington. The elimination of communists, who had violently protested U.S. influence in Indonesia, cleared the way for a greater influx of American and American-trained nation builders, such as Soetoro and Dunham. Obama’s mother and stepfather were the velvet glove of “development” covering the iron fist of state violence.
In 1967 Dunham moved with Obama to join her husband in Jakarta, and she soon took a job at a school operated by the USAID. Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father that the move was part of “the promise of something new and important” for his mother, namely “helping her husband rebuild a country in a charged and challenging place beyond her parents’ reach.” Dunham taught English to Indonesian businessmen to prepare them for U.S.-sponsored training in American business schools. It is well documented that during this period the USAID and CIA worked together closely in developing pro-American elites in Indonesia and elsewhere. One of those pro-American elites was Obama’s stepfather, who sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s began working as the governmental liaison in the Jakarta offices of the California-based Union Oil Company.
Obama’s mother spent several years at the USAID school, then took a series of jobs—all sponsored directly or indirectly by U.S. government agencies—studying and promoting American-style economic development in rural Indonesia. Through the 1970s Dunham worked on a string of projects funded by the USAID; then in 1981 she was hired by the Ford Foundation’s Southeast Asia regional office in Jakarta to help develop microfinance programs in rural Indonesia. The Ford Foundation’s entanglement with the CIA during this period has always been public knowledge, with journalists, academic scholars, and congressional investigators documenting a long history of covert funding and what the sociologist James Petras has called “a close structural relation and interchange of personnel at the highest levels between the CIA and the Ford Foundation.” A 1976 congressional investigation showed that close to half of the foundation’s international projects were funded by the agency. Dunham left the foundation in 1988 to work as a consultant and research coordinator for Bank Rakyat Indonesia, with her work again funded by the USAID. In narrating Dunham’s and Soetoro’s careers, Scott consistently fails to mention the intimate connections between Obama’s parents and U.S. agencies or, more important, to notice that an expansive U.S. foreign policy created Obama’s world.
This brings us to Dinesh D’Souza’s spectacular conspiracy theory, laid out with architectural logic in The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Although leftists and libertarians generally have dismissed the book as a psychotic screed, those of us who wish to end the American empire should nonetheless hope that D’Souza’s mind-bending thesis is correct. According to D’Souza, Obama’s aggressive foreign policies are actually part of an elaborate scheme to end what the president sees as the “wars of imperial aggression” in Iraq and Afghanistan and to withdraw the United States, which he considers “the last of the neocolonial powers,” from the world outside its borders. Obama’s alleged plan for Iraq is to wait for it to stabilize, “then say the troops aren’t needed any more,” and pull them all out. As for Afghanistan, Obama’s surge was simply a way for the president, who actually “doesn’t want to win” the war, to be able to later withdraw all the troops and still “seem tough on terrorism.” Why? Because “for an anti-colonialist like him, winning in Iraq is bad enough, but to win in Afghanistan also would be a nightmare! Think of what two victories in a row would do to America’s arrogance, and to its appetite for further wars of imperial aggression.” Motivating this grand subversion, according to D’Souza, is Obama’s devotion to the anti-colonial beliefs of his late father, Barack Obama Sr., who served as an official in the Kenyan government shortly after independence.
As much as I wish this were all true, the fatal flaw in D’Souza’s argument is that the senior Obama’s anti-colonialism did not include an antipathy toward American influence, even in his home country. In fact, the president’s father was a client of the United States.
Although D’Souza portrays Tom Mboya, Obama Sr.’s mentor and patron, as the original source of both Obamas’ alleged anti-colonialist passion, there is wide agreement among scholars of post-independence Kenyan politics that while Mboya was consistently opposed to European colonialism—his slogan was “To Hell With European Domination”—he was always a friend and beneficiary of American neocolonialism. When he was a 26-year-old rising leader in the Kenyan labor movement, Mboya made a speaking tour of American college campuses, during which he was recruited by representatives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), an anti-communist, pro-U.S. federation of trade unions that was jointly financed by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. State Department and received many of its directives from the CIA. Mboya formally joined the ICFTU in 1959 and for the rest of his life worked closely with the federation and received its continued financial support. This fact has been known since shortly after Mboya’s assassination in 1969, when Ramparts reported the following: “The CIA’s program in Kenya could be summed up as one of selective liberation. The chief beneficiary was Tom Mboya.…Mboya was ideal for the CIA’s purposes—the main nationalist hero and eventual chief of state Jomo Kenyatta, not being considered sufficiently safe.” D’Souza mentions none of this.
For D’Souza, the key piece of evidence linking Mboya’s alleged anti-colonialism with Obama Jr.’s alleged anti-Americanism is an article written by Obama Sr. in 1965, which elaborated Mboya’s political beliefs. The main, damning point in it, according to D’Souza, is the following: “The question is how are we going to remove the disparities in our country, such as the concentration of economic power in Asian and European hands, while not destroying what has already been achieved and at the same time assimilating these groups to build one country?…One need not be a Kenyan to note that nearly all commercial enterprises…and industries are mostly owned by Asians and Europeans. One need not be a Kenyan to note that when one goes to a good restaurant he mostly finds Asians and Europeans, nor has he to be a Kenyan to see that the majority of cars running in Kenya are run by Asians and Europeans.” But this is precisely why Mboya was chosen by the CIA as its front man in Kenya: He and his disciples opposed America’s rivals there. Obama Sr., like his son, devoted his career not to bringing down the American empire but to installing it in place of the declining colonial powers.
Anyone who reads these books with a knowledge of the relevant information that is left out of them—namely, the history of U.S. involvement in Indonesia and Kenya—will find it difficult to take them seriously. But a reader who connects the dots between that history and the stories these books tell should find it not only unsurprising but also predictable that a brown-skinned man “with a funny name” has taken up the long American project of killing people with names and complexions like his in order to save them.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).