On the campaign trail, Barack Obama lambasted the policies of George W. Bush that had made the US an international pariah — war and contempt for human rights. For us, part of the senator’s attraction as a candidate was that he promised transparency, opposed the Iraq war and repudiated militarism. So it is hard not to feel disappointed.
Obama now embraces — and has extended — some of the ideas he had attacked. This is not just the way that critics on the left, like us, see things. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary, said: “It’s like George Bush is having his fourth term ... [Mr Obama] is a hypocrite.” In truth, this is a little facile. The president has rejected key elements of the neoconservative programme.
This administration has, more or less, halted torture, removed troops from Iraq, set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, paid lip service to nuclear abolition and refused to invade Iran. The president has been more sceptical than most in Washington about intervening in Syria. He also sought to close Guantanamo, though his efforts thus far have been feeble.
So, no, he is not Bush. But there is actually a case to be made that Obama is, in crucial respects, actually worse than his predecessor. We know, from the recent revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, what panoptic capabilities the more than one million Americans with security clearances have. This army is deployed to monitor domestic and foreign populations on a scale hitherto unimaginable.
Obama insists there are safeguards in place to ensure the streams of data and warehouses full of stored records will not be abused — the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for example. But this body appears to be a rubber stamp. It approved every request made of it last year. It rejected only two of the 8,591 requests submitted between 2008 and 2012.
Let us take the White House’s word that this great power will not be abused. Let us assume the best of Obama. Even if his administration does not wantonly trawl through the trillions of emails, photos and phone conversations passing through the National Security Agency (NSA), there is someone who will. Once such data are collected, it will be eventually accessed. It is a temptation too far.
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1935 to 1972, demonstrated this truth over a long and ignominious career. He placed Martin Luther King Jr under surveillance — only one of the civic leaders that he sought to discredit. Future leaders will not need to resort to water cannon and tear gas to stop protesters. Nor will they even need to plant bugs. The NSA now has an interception machine that East Germany’s Stasi could only have dreamt about.
Furthermore, if subtle coercion fails and force is required, Obama and his successors will have the wherewithal to target anyone, anywhere, with the utmost precision and the deadliest means. The US is establishing absolute mastery over land, sea, air, space and cyber space — full-spectrum dominance.
We have seen this starting to take form: Obama pores over weekly “kill lists”. He chooses who to target with drones, new, more sophisticated versions of which are being rapidly developed and not only by the US. But Obama and his advisers pay little heed to the fact that these programmes create more terrorists than they eliminate. Nowhere is the US more hated than in Pakistan, where drones have killed thousands.
Furthermore, American technological superiority will not protect the US. In the 1940s, president Harry Truman believed the Soviet Union was a long way from producing nuclear weapons and that the US would have a long nuclear monopoly. It lasted only until 1949. The US will make a similar miscalculation if it deploys drones across the world, sends weapons to space or normalises cyber warfare.
Obama has become a more amiable and efficient manager of the American empire. And, in the name of national security, he is laying the foundation for a frighteningly dystopian future by combining full-spectrum surveillance with full-spectrum military dominance. Obama’s dogged global pursuit of the courageous Snowden is only the latest shameful case in point. It was almost exactly 60 years ago that Jean-Paul Sartre warned Americans: “Your country is sick with fear ... do not be astonished if we cry out from one end of Europe to the other: Watch out! America has the rabies! Cut all ties which bind us to her, otherwise we will in turn be bitten and run mad!”
Obama, under whom hunger strikers are force fed and whistleblowers prosecuted with unparalleled ferocity, needs to recalibrate before he drives the final nails into the coffin of a once proud American republic.
Oliver Stone is an Academy Award-winning writer and director. Peter Kuznick is a professor of history at American University. They have co-authored the documentary series The Untold History of the United States.