He ran on a platform of "hope" and "change". But the only long-term change for which Barack Obama might well be remembered come November 7 will be to have breathed new life into an imperial machine that was fraying at the seams when he first took office.
As the campaign comes down to its final days, liberal commentators continue to define the contest as one between a "vote for the future or the past". It's a standard liberal political polemic, whether in the US or the Arab/Muslim world (or Israel for that matter) - labelling conservatives as incapable of "accommodation with diversity and modernity", as being stuck in a cultural, moral and political time warp.
The reality, sadly, is that the political establishment of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, is still stuck in the previous century, committed to maintaining unchallenged leadership of a system that is utterly incapable of meeting the diverse ecological and human needs of the 21st century. The leadership of the two major parties might well disagree over social issues and how much assistance the government should provide to young, old, sick and poor Americans. But as the Obama Presidency has demonstrated, there is no one close to the reigns of power who has the courage or ability to challenge the premise of the existing system and use their position fundamentally to transform towards more humane and sustainable ends.
Gaining or challenging power?
Trying to explain why as President Obama abandoned so many of the ideals for which he once proudly stood, the New York Times opined that "Barack Obama concluded that to make a difference he needed to gain power". "I would learn power's currency," Obama wrote of his move from community organiser in Chicago to Harvard Law School, and then bring that knowledge "back to where it was needed... like Promethean fire".
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Aside from the thoroughly naïve equation of knowledge and power (as if merely knowing how things work will give you the power to change them), it's hard to know how to judge such a claim. Did Obama really felt he could "steal" some of the powerful's power, bring it home and use it against the system? Or, as now seems more likely, did such a sentiment merely reveal his deftness with a turn of phrase.
Whatever Obama believed, it's clear that gaining power within a thoroughly corrupt and violent system does not empower people to change it. The strategies for achieving and then bringing home power that Obama learned as a young community activist have little currency in a political-economic system in which the power of workers and organised labour has been severely diminished and the government is in good measure literally owned by corporate interests.
Today as Obama's biography has so clearly shown, the road to power is one way. It's not that power chains you down, as happened to Prometheus, or burns you for your hubris like Icarus. Rather, it disciplines you, educates you, narrows the contours of your imagination of what is possible to change. Till the point that your actions wind up strengthening the system you hoped to transform rather than empowering those farthest from the fire to share in its warmth.
If the Arab uprisings have shown us anything, it's that you don't make a difference by gaining power in a system designed to arrogate power to a small elite. You make a difference by challenging it directly and without compromise, until the entire system weakens, if not crumbles. Of course, if Obama had any such intentions, he'd never have made it out of the primaries in 2008, or even have been elected to the US Senate four years before.
The Bush administration will always be remembered for its imperial hubris, as the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, so aptly put it. The combination of arrogance and ignorance of the most senior figures of the Bush era enabled an undersized rival to knock the US off the rails of a post-Cold War global system it appeared so thoroughly to dominate with one well-placed blow. In contrast, Obama sought to define his presidency as one "humbled by the task before us", as he declared in his June 2009 speech in Cairo which was supposed to reset America's relations with the Muslim world.
Empires decline for many reasons. Crucial resources are overused or begin to run out. Markets are lost to rivals. New technologies, sources of raw materials and/or markets are "discovered" by competitors to which they don't have access.
The US case is interesting precisely because it staggered so soon after becoming the unchallenged "hegemon" or "hyperpower" of the still emerging post-Cold War order. Rome, the Arab-Islamic empires, Imperial China, England - previous hyperpowers enjoyed centuries of unchallenged rule before succumbing to younger and hungrier rivals. What happened to the US?
To be sure, "neoliberalism", the governing process of contemporary globalisation, radically shifted the balance of power between the US and the other advanced market economies (Europe and Japan) and the rival Soviet bloc to the former's favour. At the same time, beginning in the late 1960s, the dynamics of the emerging global economy also shifted the balance of power between government, organised labour and corporations in the US and Europe to the distinct advantage of the latter, weakening and (at least in the US and UK) ultimately breaking the social contract that had created the post-War welfare state and the unprecedented middle class prosperity it enabled.
The ideology underlying neoliberalism was perfectly attuned to the transformation in global capitalism from production to consumption-based economies, and ultimately to hyper-consumerist societies, in which greed and unlimited consumption, without regard to long-term social, environmental and economic costs, came to define American culture and its political economy. However, on the other side of the world, China became the producer of choice for the Walmartised global consumer economy, all the while accumulating huge reserves of foreign exchange which it has used to help finance debt-based US consumption of its products (a trick first mastered by the great 19th century European empires).
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The steady and relentless rise of China, within a larger globalised system that US strategic planners correctly adduced would produce increased poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and conflict internationally and in the context of an expected tightening of petroleum supplies, was clearly a major concern for the Bush administration when it took office. Indeed, what Scheuer termed imperial hubris might be equally described as imperial fright, a feeling that America's ability to maintain its dominant position - and the elite's ability to placate the population with unprecedented levels of consumption - was slipping and that only drastic action would save the day.
We will never know what the Bush administration would have done to preserve itself had terrorists not toppled the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. But this event allowed for Bush and the sectors of the US elite his administration most directly represented - oil, defence and related industries - both to deepen their position within the US political economy and to generate a level of chaos in the global system that, if managed correctly, would help ensure continued American supremacy in the face of competition from China and other rising powers.
The Bush administration and its big oil and defence industry patrons might have "thrived" on the chaos of the war on terror's first half decade, but the excesses it produced - from massive defence expenditures and sanctioned torture abroad to predatory debt capitalism at home - were not well-managed, putting the whole system at risk. A systematic recalibration was needed, one which would curtail its excesses and put it on a sounder long-term footing without disturbing the basic alignment of forces and balance of power between them. And it is precisely this goal which Obama achieved so well.
A new playbook
It's well known now that Obama bailed out banks and major corporations which were most directly responsible for the financial crisis that exploded in 2007, while offering far slimmer relief to the ordinary Americans for whom he once dreamed of stealing the fire of political and economic power. Militarily, the President has succeeded in fulfilling the unrealised strategic goals of the Bush administration to transform the US military and security complex into a leaner and far more efficient killing machine that maintains "full spectrum dominance" over all existing or potential adversaries and all technologies or methods that could be deployed to challenge US power.
And perhaps most important, Obama has outshone his predecessor in curtailing the most basic rights and freedoms Americans and anyone else might have to challenge, resist or even hope to transform the system. In a June column, I tried to lay the many ways that the current administration has "fused" together intelligence gathering, untrammeled prosecutorial powers, and extrajudicial murder and imprisonment as core means of ensuring its policies face no robust challenge from citizens or their representatives.
The situation has become even more dangerous, as the Federal courts have supported the administration's attempts to suppress any challenges to laws that could lead to indefinite detention of American citizens without trial for engaging in constitutionally protected activities while the Supreme Court has refused to hear appeals to convictions based on secret testimony of anonymous witnesses whom defendants were prohibited to cross examine.
A recent series of articles in the Washington Post, among other publications, has revealed the extent to which the Obama administration has not merely entrenched Bush administration policies but developed a new "matrix" or "playbook" (as Chief Counter-Terrorism Adviser John O Brennan describes it) to ensure that perceived threats and enemies can be disposed of in a manner that is "so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit".
The "disposition matrix" that has been developed is a "next-generation targeting list" that supposedly pairs the name of every suspected terrorist with all the possible ways in which that person can be disposed of, whether through drones, special operations, local government actions or capture. The development of this matrix signals recognition that the US will be disposing of perceived enemies for years to come, with no end in sight.
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As one senior official explained, "We can't possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us [now]... We're not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, 'We love America'."
What this means is that after well over $4 trillion spent on the global war on terror since 9/11 and hundreds of thousands of deaths (including more people from US drones than were killed on 9/11), the US has at best reached the "midpoint" in the war whose origins it still refuses to explore honestly. Moreover, the increased monitoring of American citizens, including the increasing curtailment of basic constitutional guarantees and rights, have under Obama, been enshrined as "fixtures of the national security apparatus".
Anyone who might be a threat, or even standing next to someone who could fit the profile of a threat, can now, quite literally, be whacked (a former CIA official compared the killing of potential terrorists to the action of a lawn mower or weed whacker, which has to be used all the time or the grass/terrorists will just "grow back"). As we've seen, even American citizens who happen to be related to terror suspects can now be killed with impunity by any one of at least half a dozen agencies involved in launching drone strikes.
In fact, not only do most drone strikes have the Presidential imprimatur, the FBI also signs off on the extra-judicial killings, meaning that the entire federal law enforcement bureaucracy is now implicated in such practices.
'What happened to everything we used to be?'
So asked Lauryn Hill in her seminal 1998 song and album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill". It's hard to imagine Barack Obama wasn't a fan of the multi-Grammy winning album when it was released (one can hope his tastes weren't always limited to Jay-Z and Beyonce).
How did a community organiser-turned-Constitutional law professor-turned-public servant become the chief custodian, enabler and enforcer of a matrix of policies that so clearly violates the most basic principles of the Constitution he's sworn to uphold? Indeed, rather than change the system, as so many who'd voted for him hoped he would do, President Obama has behaved much as we might imagine Mitt Romney would as President - ever the good manager, searching for new ways to trim the fat, increase efficiency, make the enterprise more sustainable and profitable for those with preferred stock and "voting shares".
Perhaps, like Neo in The Matrix, Obama swallowed the red pill, went all the way down the rabbit hole and realised that unlike in the movies, in real life there is no way back to the world he'd hoped to create. Perhaps, when he took office, his economic, political and military advisers, all of whom were part of the neoliberal establishment that straddled the Clinton and Bush administrations, disabused him of any thought of achieving real change. It's not hard to imagine them taking him aside, pouring him a whisky or fine wine and letting him know that whatever he'd hoped to accomplish, if he tried to change the system in any fundamental way, his presidency would end in ruins.
Let's face it; hope and change probably never had a chance.
"In fact, not only do most drone strikes have the Presidential imprimatur, the FBI also signs off on the extra-judicial killings..."
But we can imagine what might have happened if instead of spending four years designing a new playbook with 50 ways to dispose of potential enemies Obama had spent his efforts developing a new playbook with 50 new ways to fight poverty, global warming, environmental degradation and authoritarianism? What if he'd been honest with the American people and the world, explained precisely the forces lined up against him and us, and laid out a vision to build a sustainable global system that would protect the most vulnerable, raise living standards for the billions of people still living on $2 a day or less, and foster technologies that both protected the earth and could produce significant wealth for the new entrepreneurs of the 21st century?
Most likely, his attempts would have produced a vicious counter-attack by those forces currently in power with the most to lose. But he also would have marked out a new space for resistance and protest that could have inspired activists both inside the United States and abroad to work together to begin building elements of a new global order.
To be sure, his Presidency might have gone down in flames, but if people had actually seen a president who cared little for his political future and was willing to sacrifice it for the chance to bring out fundamental change in the system, Obama might have inspired the kind of uprising among the middle and working classes that would have truly threatened the US and global elite, forcing them to make the compromises necessary to recalibrate the global system to reflect a balance of power that not only serves the interests of a far greater percentage of the earth's population, but of earth itself as well.
Such an agenda would not likely have won him a second term, but it would have won the President a place in history as one of the few leaders to live up to the great promise they brought to office, and as a symbol of the belief that "another world is possible". A world where "disposition matrices" and the trillion-dollar military security machines needed to execute them, no longer determine our collective political horizons. Let's hope that if he wins on Tuesday, Obama will have the courage to begin moving towards the kind of politics that first got him elected, rather than the one that has very nearly brought him to an ignominious defeat.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.