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In Pt 2 of 4 of Reality Asserts Itself, Paul Jay and Max Blumenthal discuss US foreign policy from Bush to Obama and the concept that in “defense of civilization”, every crime is acceptable

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

On Sunday, on 11 August, Jean Bethke Elshtain, a philosopher of politics and religion, passed away. She was 72 years old. She was considered a guiding light, according to The New York Times, of American policymakers, specifically President George Bush after 9/11. She was called in with a group of philosophers and ethicists who were asked to give a framework for what the American response to 9/11 would be. She, quoting St. Augustine, supported both the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, essentially believing that there is such a thing as absolute evil and one can conduct war against absolute evil. I think you could say one can conduct relative evil if you’re fighting absolute evil.

Apparently, one of President Obama’s favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr. Here’s a quote from Niebuhr:

“We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power.”

Now joining us to talk about current U.S. policy towards Egypt and the Middle East in the context of this quote-unquote moral hazardous decisions is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning journalist, best-selling author of the book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. His new book coming out soon is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So we’re going to pick up on our discussion about Egypt, but I wanted to place it in the context of the kind of moral hazard and the kind of, I would think, kind of delusional moral conception created for these kinds of decisions. But how do you keep giving aid and you–to a military regime that has just killed 1,000 people? You have this crazy decision it’s not a coup, ’cause we don’t have to say whether it’s a coup or not. And everyone–the hypocrisy of it is just too obvious to even call hypocrisy. If Iran did even something a quarter of this, the American government would be going off their rocker.

BLUMENTHAL: Well, how do you keep giving $3 billion a year to Israel? They’re talking about increasing Israel’s aid to improve its qualitative military edge. I mean, if the U.S. was serious about a war on terror, it would immediately end aid to Israel, which is practicing acts of state terror on a regular basis, particularly against the residents of Gaza. I mean, this is kind of obvious.

But, you know, Obama just like Bush, needed a kind of high-minded philosophical framework. And you mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr. So he’s turning to that to justify advancing what he believes are U.S. interests.

JAY: And do they not equate U.S. interest with defense of civilization in their own minds?

BLUMENTHAL: I think Bush did.

JAY: I think even Dick Cheney believes–.

BLUMENTHAL: I think Bush had these ideas about–these Samuel Huntington-type ideas about a clash of civilizations. I think he saw things in a much more messianic way than Barack Obama, in a classically messianic, evangelical way than Barack Obama. And we have to remember who Bush is. He’s a former alcoholic who cleansed his soul through the blood of Christ and became basically a dry drunk who absorbed himself into this, you know, evangelical macho Jesus figure who was sort of a crusader.

And I really believe, you know, for–I’m not making this as–making a positive statement about Bush, but he had strong principles and core beliefs. I don’t know if Barack Obama shares those kind of principles and beliefs, and I think many supporters of Obama in Washington are hard-pressed to define him in the way that Bush was easily able to define himself.

And so back to Niebuhr, Obama was asked–when the Washington press corps, when the deans of the press corps and the pundit class wanted to vet him, he was asked by David Brooks, the neocon pundit, someone who Obama would want to kiss up to, as he did with Jeffrey Goldberg, what do you think of Reinhold Niebuhr? And Obama immediately said, I love him.

Now, Obama isn’t the first president to love Niebuhr. It was really the post-World War II generation of cold warriors that loved him, because they were going to crack some skulls in fighting the Soviet Union. You know, I don’t think they wanted to do so directly against the Soviet Union, but in Latin America it had to be done. In Southeast Asia it had to be done. So Kennedy loved him. George Kennan, you know, Niebuhr was kind of his teacher, and this was the foreign policy mind, the man who really shaped the Democrats’ post-World War II agenda during the Cold War.

And the central idea, if you really–I’m not a student of Niebuhr, but this is kind of common knowledge that his central idea was the paradox of grace, that you as a person in power cannot act without doing some harm, that grace is impossible. I think would think, you know, if I was going to aspire to a position of power, my philosophy would be to try to do no harm.

But for someone like Obama, who is identified with liberalism, this is an attractive philosophy, especially during the war on terror, which he sort of extended after Bush provides you with at least the–it provides you with at least some kind of philosophical framework you can talk about to present yourself as a serious person with real principles to people like David Brooks, who, by the way, said he felt a thrill up his leg when Obama said that he liked Reinhold Niebuhr.

But really all it’s doing is providing you with justification for the kinds of things that Barack Obama and his administration have done in the past two weeks–seven drone strikes in seven days in Yemen, maybe 35 dead. We don’t know who they are, and the Yemeni government has admitted–I mean, this is a government allied with the U.S.–has admitted that at least one-third had no affiliation with militancy or al-Qaeda.

The refusal of the U.S. at the UN in the UN Security Council to issue a resolution condemning Egypt for these massacres–Kerry, John Kerry, another person who would probably say he loves Reinhold Niebuhr, is meeting, is on the phone with Nabil Fahmy, who is the foreign minister of Egypt, probably every day right now. And he’s getting his advice from him. And this is a guy installed by this coup regime, someone Kerry has worked with in Washington for probably the past decade or more, and they know each other.

And this–so how do you justify it? You can justify it in a crude way according to U.S. interests, but it’s much more attractive to have a philosophy to justify it to the intellectual class, the liberal intelligentsia, and to justify it to yourself so you can sleep at night. So this is, you know, a philosophy that can apply to Obama, but could also apply to a common gangster who goes out and kills his enemies or those he perceives as enemies and his wife says, why did you do that? You know, why’d you kill Fat Tony? And he says, a man’s got to eat.

JAY: And it goes–if you go back to the end of World War II, how do you justify firebombing of populous cities like Hamburg? How do you justify the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and dropping an atomic bomb? In the roots of this mentality is that if you’re fighting this absolute evil, then what you do is not evil, and even though on the face of it I don’t know what’s more evil than dropping atomic bombs on a population.

BLUMENTHAL: Well, Curtis LeMay, who carried out those attacks on Japan, the firebombing attacks–they called him “Bombs Away” LeMay–said, if we lost the war, we would have been put on trial for war crimes. So he didn’t see what he was doing as morally just. He saw it as something that he had to do to win a war.

JAY: Except it’s pretty well acknowledged now. I think the evidence is they knew they were going to win the war without dropping bombs. Perhaps the firebombing helped contribute to that. But I think most of the scholarship now is that the atomic bombs didn’t win the war. The atomic bombs were probably much more a shot across the bow of what they saw, absolute evil, which is communism in the Soviet Union. And certainly that rationale that this is the great evil, the great Satan, justified every kind of crime under various administrations. And Reagan articulated it most clearly.

BLUMENTHAL: We don’t need great scholars to tell us that the Iraq War was a disaster and a horrendous crime that may have left–I mean, people are still dying at least as an indirect result every day by the dozens, but may have left as many as 1 million civilians dead. And when Barack Obama was asked about whether he thought the U.S. should apologize for anything it had done in the past decade during, I think, his first campaign for president, he said, absolutely not and I think the U.S. is a force for good in the world. And this is part of his view of the paradox of grace.

JAY: Yeah, you have to do bad things to be a force for good.

BLUMENTHAL: And then we have to go to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He was given the Nobel Prize having accomplished very little. I mean, he did hold the “Beer Summit” with Henry Louis Gates and a Boston cop, but I don’t know what else he accomplished to deserve this prize. And he made the same kind of speech with the same kind of language we find in Niebuhr’s writings about the need to have to go to war sometimes. And he knew that he was going to probably kill some civilians while he was in office. And how is he going to justify this to the world, to the liberal intelligentsia, and to himself? And so, I mean, he has this framework. He’s found this framework. And as I said before, Bush came to office with this framework, with a very radical evangelical and crude understanding of the world. Barack Obama sees things in a–I think in a much more nuanced way, but ultimately he’s embracing the same policy as Bush.

JAY: And I think they do have this rationalization that the advancement of American commercial interest, the advancement of American dominance of the world, oh, yeah, it makes us rich, yes, we benefit from it, but without us doing all of this, there would be the collapse of civilization, which helps, I mean, the same way kings could make peasants pay taxes because God made me king and you should pay me taxes. It helps to have God there in your head to be able to say, this is all just and this is the way it should be.

BLUMENTHAL: I don’t know if Barack Obama believes in God or–.

JAY: No. God, or dress it up in some form of philosophical framework, but it kind of amounts to the same thing.

BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. I don’t know how–I mean, I think that he’s seeking philosophical justification.

But, I mean, let’s approach this in terms of legal theory, I mean, and history. Obama has come into office at a certain time in history. If he’d come into office in the ’70s, maybe he, you know, would have been a completely different person. But he is coming to office after Bush, after the U.S. has begun to embrace this idea of asymmetrical warfare, which is basically an Israeli invention. And Israel has perfected it on the people of Gaza.

In Israel, the Israeli army has its own moral philosophers, and they’re actually–it’s an official position. There’s a guy at Tel Aviv University named Asa Kasher who calls himself a practical philosopher. He teaches philosophy. And he has come up with the–he’s written basically the rules of engagement from a philosophical standpoint and a legal theoretical standpoint for the Israeli army, particularly when it attacks Gaza. And this is where the, you know, drone warfare has been perfected against the people of Gaza. It’s basically a laboratory for asymmetrical warfare.

Asymmetrical warfare has no real meaning. What it is is a replacement for the kind of conventional warfare that was guided by the Geneva Conventions. And a whole new set of legal standards has to come into play.

So what Kasher called the people of Gaza, the civilians–and he said this explicitly–is the terrorists’ nondangerous neighbor. In other words, there is no such thing as a civilian. We have to scrap the idea of protections for civilians, because there are no armies anymore and we’re facing a population of, you know, restive natives who are all dangerous to us. And this is–you know, flows directly from Israel’s settler colonial position.

And the U.S. has slowly begun to adopt this as it moved into Afghanistan, where it was fighting non-conventional forces, now in Yemen especially.

Lieutenant Daniel Reisner, who is the former legal adviser to the Israeli army, said that international law progresses through violations. And what he meant by that is that the more the U.S. adopts our approach in Afghanistan and begins killing civilians, the U.S., as the superpower, as the leader of the world, will begin to redefine international law in a way that benefits us, because we won’t be punished with–for our violations of the Geneva Accords, we won’t be slapped with things like the Goldstone Report anymore. And so you’re seeing a complete redefinition of the idea of what a civilian is and what a soldier is through the U.S.’s embrace of asymmetrical warfare, which is now primarily carried out by robots. It’s not even people fighting people.

JAY: Right. And, again, it all gets rationalized that if you’re defending civilization–and much of the Western political elite, liberal and neocon and conservative, in their mindset, Israel is this outpost of Western civilization in the Middle East. So what–Israel does bad things in order to defend this outpost of civilization, ’cause if they want to face the reality of who they are, it’s rather appalling, because they are the greatest threat to civilization. You know, who dropped the atomic bomb? I mean, go from there all through the atrocities of the Cold War. And that’s not to prettify who the enemies were, who also committed crimes, but nothing on the scale. But this mentality, which is–you know, essentially comes down to we’re fighting evil–so right now it’s communism, now it’s Islamic terrorism. You can do anything, you can bomb kids in Gaza, ’cause what are you doing? You’re defending civilization for the West. And, of course, at the bottom line of this is real economic interest and geopolitical control, but it needs this–I think they need this framework.

BLUMENTHAL: They need this–this is the true shared values between Israel and the West is the idea of Israel as a Fort Apache on the front lines of civilization, of Western civilization. You could even call it white civilization. That’s how someone like Anders Breivik, the Christian right-wing terrorist from Norway, saw things was that he, in his manifesto, repeatedly referred to and discussed Israel in terms of this frontline outpost of civilization, and he talked about a demographic war in Europe against the invading immigrants, the brown-skinned Muslim immigrants. And I think a lot of the people who are setting policy across the West see it this way, in terms of managing the inner city, in terms of managing the border of the U.S. and Mexico, that there is actually kind of a demographic war afoot, there’s a war, there’s sort of a quiet war against indigenous group, against immigrants, but people who will ultimately corrupt our society and our civilization unless they’re kept in check and Israel is the master of–has the methods.

So, you know, you look at all of Israel’s propaganda efforts, which are silly–you know, you call it hasbara in Hebrew–its efforts to explain itself to the world, and they get more and more ridiculous. The Israeli army the other day used a photo of a shopping mall in Malaysia and said it was in Gaza to show that the Gazans were living the good life.

But the real value that Israel has is not through its propaganda, but through its ability to market its methods of asymmetrical warfare. It has a whole program it can sell to any country that has the means to buy it. It’s just taken over 40 percent–Rafael, the state-owned Israeli weapons company, has just taken over 40 percent of the Brazilian arms industry. Four Israeli drones which were purchased by Brazil were used to monitor the recent protests in Rio. And Israel markets it by saying, we tested these on Palestinians. They’re field-tested. Now you can use them. And U.S. prisons, prisons in Europe are buying Israeli equipment for monitoring. So it’s not just weapons; it’s an entire program that really suggests a dystopian future for those who embrace it.

JAY: And I can hear some of our audience are saying, well, if Israel, maybe they are this defense of democracy in the Middle East, ’cause look at, you know, what Chris Hitchens and others wanted to call Islamo-fascism and all this throughout the Middle East, but then they want to completely discount how the hell that got there, ’cause it was precisely this mentality, that in fighting godless communism anything is justifiable, that they created the Saudis as the center of opposition to nationalism and socialism in the Middle East. It’s precisely this that–you know, they were financing the Pakistani army and the ISI that helped give birth to Taliban, who invites bin Laden to Afghanistan and helps essentially nurture the roots of what becomes al-Qaeda. It’s all part of this American policy that if you’re fighting against bringing down the Soviet Union (and I interviewed Brzezinski; he has no regrets about all this), anything was justifiable if you brought down the Soviet Union. Except this is what you have now. I mean, you created this world with precisely this philosophy.

BLUMENTHAL: Well, Israel’s the West’s most extreme vision of itself, and the more we become like Israel, the more we should fear for our freedoms, because–and fear for our values, because Israel is predicated on the idea of ethnocracy, that a group which came–a settler colonial group came and basically displaced an indigenous group and is still engaged in a project of ethnic cleansing, and it has to do so to maintain itself as a Jewish state, because the Jewish state is built on the foundation of a demographic majority. Benjamin Netanyahu has defined 70 percent as the threshold that Israel needs to maintain of its demographic majority in territories it controls.

Now, that means that if you applied that to the U.S., which is majority white and Christian, those who really identify with Israel as an ethnocracy are saying we have to maintain ourselves as a white–maintain our white Christian demographic majority. In Europe, the same thing. That’s why you see these increasing links between Israel and the far right in Europe and the Islamophobic right in the U.S. It flows directly from demographic panic.

But the scary thing is you see it even in Washington in the foreign policy establishment, and you hear it in the rhetoric of Barack Obama, who consistently says that Israel lives in a bad neighborhood. He’s using the backlash rhetoric of the ’70s that led to kind of these action movies like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, where this white guy who’s the last holdout of white flight takes on the black criminals in the inner city. And that’s Israel. And Obama is embracing that idea of Israel, which is incredibly dangerous, and I don’t think he actually understands the implications of what he’s saying or wants to.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to find out a little bit more about Max. And one of the things you’re going to find out about Max is that he’s one of the more outspoken critics of Israeli policy. And he’s suffered a lot of slings and arrows as a result of it. And then we’re going to talk a little bit more about contemporary Middle East politics. So please stick with us as we continue our series of interviews with Max Blumenthal on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.