In his speech last month to the United Nations, President Obama summoned foreign leaders to join his “campaign against extremism.” Obama has repeatedly invoked the “extremist” threat to justify attacking abroad and seizing more power at home since taking office in 2009. But the president’s own record makes it tricky for him to pirouette as the World Savior of Moderation.
Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was vilified in 1964 for declaring that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Obama’s presidency illustrates how extremism in favor of government power is not a vice – at least according to the mainstream media.
As part of his ever-broadening campaign against potential extremists, Obama now claims a right to kill Americans and foreigners without a trial, without notice, and without any chance for targets to legally object. Obama has authorized drone attacks that have killed thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere; the casualties include large numbers of women and children who posed no threat to the United States. But as long as some of the victims were linked to purported extremists, Americans are supposed to cheer Obama’s pioneering prerogatives for secret assassinations.
Obama justified pummeling Libya in 2011 so that that nation would not become “a new safe haven for extremists” – but there are far more violent terrorists there now than before the U.S. intervened. Obama has written himself a blank check to expand bombing in Iraq and Syria because of extremist perils – even though the U.S. government previously covertly armed some of the same extremists it is now trying to destroy. The notion that the U.S. government is entitled to bomb foreign lands based solely on the president’s decree – regardless of congressional opposition – would have been considered extremist idiocy by earlier generations of Americans.
Obama’s campaign against extremism apparently also entitles him to waive the rules of logic. Saudi Arabia King Abdullah recently denounced religious extremism as a perversion. The Saudis are charter members in Obama’s latest crusade, and the fact that the Saudis have beheaded vastly more people than ISIS seems to have vanished from the Washington storyline (or maybe pundits believe that people convicted of “sorcery” got what they deserved). Having the Saudis join a war against extremism is like enrolling the Mafia in a high-profile campaign against abusive loan collection practices.
While Obama acts as if extremism is a self-evident offense, his administration continually broadens the definition of potential enemies – or at least troublemakers. The Department of Homeland Security has attached the “extremist” tag to gun rights activists, anti-immigration zealots, and individuals and groups “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority” – even though many of the Founding Fathers shared the same creed. A 2012 Homeland Security report went even further, stating that being “reverent of individual liberty” is one of the traits of potential right wing terrorists.
Similarly, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department justified massive surveillance of the Occupy Wall Street movement due to threat of “extremist” intervention in its ranks. A Transportation Security Administration memo called for “vigilance” of a planned Occupy New Orleans march because “the potential always exists for extremists to exploit or redirect events such as this or use the event to escalate or trigger their own agendas,” as a Center for Media and Democracy report noted.
Obama is following in the footsteps of the Bush administration. President George W. Bush praised praised Croatian troops sent to Iraq for having “performed bravely in recent active theaters during this war against extremism.” During his 2004 reelection campaign, Bush proclaimed, “This struggle between political extremism and civilized values is unfolding in many places.” And any methods the Bush administration used were “civilized” by definition because the opponents were extremists.
There is no reason to trust politicians not to exploit “extremism” to crush political dissent. In 2007, the House of Representatives passed the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Act by a vote of 405 to 6. The bill defined “violent radicalization” as opinions which promote an “extremist belief system.” Extremist was not defined: but opposition to U.S. government foreign policies has long been tacitly considered as “un-American” in Washington. The legislation would have left it up to the political appointees at the Justice Department to determine which ideas and beliefs are signposts on the road to damnation. The bill would have entitled the feds to stomp out extremism before it started. It also would have authorized the Secretary of Homeland Security to create a grant program to prevent radicalization and to bankroll a university Center of Excellence for the Study of Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States. The bill stalled in the Senate and never became law.
“Extremism” is even more vaporous than “terrorism.” With terrorism, at least the individual or group is purportedly committing (or planning to commit) some violent act. An extremist, on the other hand, is someone with a bad attitude who might do something unpleasant in the future. Crackdowns on potential extremists can provide the perfect tool to demonize political opposition at home and abroad. Should we assume that the feds are justified in targeting destroying anyone who is less moderate than Obama?
In his first speech to Congress in early 2009, Obama declared, “To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend – because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America.” Unfortunately, Obama seems to have long since forgotten his early admonition. Instead, he has taught the world how easy it is to seize new powers based on the shakiest pretexts. How long will it take Americans to repeal Obama’s anti-extremism excesses?
James Bovard, counterpunch.org