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US elections 2024: An ageing Biden and the crisis of liberal imperialism

According to US liberals, Trump's imperialism is ugly, whereas Biden's is 'kinder and gentler' with moral authority. But they are simply the two sides of the same vulgarity of power
US President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin, on 5 July 2024 (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin, on 5 July 2024 (Saul Loeb/AFP)

US President Joe Biden is 81 years old. After his televised debate with former US President Donald Trump on 27 June 2024, he has been perceived as frail, ageing and not in full command of his faculties.

In the words of the New York Times editorial board after the debate: “The president appeared… as the shadow of a great public servant. He struggled to explain what he would accomplish in a second term. He struggled to respond to Mr Trump’s provocations. He struggled to hold Mr Trump accountable for his lies, failures and chilling plans. More than once, he struggled to make it to the end of a sentence.”

The New York Times columnists are now waxing poetic, citing King Lear - “What wouldst thou do, old man? Think’st thou that duty shall dread to speak, When power to flattery bows?” - urging the powermonger Biden to step aside and let a new generation of more youthful liberal imperialists take over.

Rebecca Solnit of the Guardian is absolutely correct that US liberal media has “become a stampeding herd producing an avalanche of stories suggesting Biden is unfit” at a dangerously late point in the race.

But she misses the point as to why the liberal US media is so particular about liberal imperialism. They do not have anything particular against Biden. They would just like his brand of liberal imperialism to defeat the ugly, vulgar, dangerous neofascism that Trump represents and Trumpism has in stock.

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They do not wish the world to see this true and unvarnished face and fact of America.

All indications are that Biden is not in full command of his wits. That is perfectly normal, natural, and even beautiful to behold for any decent human being who now needs to retire and contemplate the course of his life and the fate of our humanity. 

In As You Like It, Shakespeare gives a full course of human life to his character Jaques to recite from infancy to old age with perfect melodious justice that ends with a person without teeth, without eyes, without taste, without everything. 

But Biden is not a normal human being. He is an American politician, a powermonger, insatiable in his hunger to remain in the full public and political limelight, no matter how frail and fragile his body, no matter how weak and wonky his wits.

Ugly face of US imperialism

This is a common disease among US politicians of Biden’s generation.

Dianne Feinstein (1933-2023), Democratic senator of California, served for three decades in the Senate and had over 50 years of active public life.

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is now 82 and is the longest-serving politician in his state's history. He is still serving even after being seen publicly frozen stiff, unable to move or utter a word.

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Americans keep a close record of how old their presidents are at inauguration. At 78, Biden was the oldest person to have become president, then t iwas Trump at 70 and Ronald Reagan at 69.

"I don't understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have got a lot of money," Barack Obama lectured African leaders when he visited the continent in July 2015. But when it came to Biden, Obama offered his public support for his octogenarian former vice president. 

They prefer Biden to Trump because Trump is the ugly and vulgar face of American imperialism

So why is the New York Times right now leading the public and political campaign to force Biden out of the race?  

Simple. They prefer Biden to Trump because Trump is the ugly and vulgar face of American imperialism, while Biden to them is the gentler, kinder face of the self-same imperialism.

The fact that Biden has earned the epithet “Genocide Joe” because of his full participation in the Israeli mass murder of Palestinians does not bother the New York Times and the liberal imperialism that is the ideology they represent in this country.

They just fear he does not look good on television and may lose to Trump, who is as much a pro-Israeli Zionist as Biden.

Fake morality

The predicament of liberal imperialism in the US is of course not new.

Back in 2013, Stephen M Walt, the renowned professor of international relations at Harvard, wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy what the idea of liberal imperialism means in the US context.

“Are you a liberal imperialist,” he asked. “Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: like neocons, they believe it’s America’s responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they’re comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria or Afghanistan.”

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This itself is a kinder and gentler understanding of liberal imperialism, which wants it both ways.

As evident in the current US involvement in the Israeli genocide in Gaza, and much more, we need to ask Palestinians how “kinder and gentler” Biden is in his liberal imperialism.

Walt was closer to the truth when he admitted in the same essay: “Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good.”

The origin of the idea of liberal democracy is still much older and goes back as least as far as the heyday of British imperialism. 

“Since the origins of Empire in India,” wrote Karuna Mantena in The Crisis of Liberal Imperialism (2010), “major British political thinkers struggled to make sense of the ‘strange’ and ‘anomalous’ character of British rule in India  and to construct a politically legitimate and morally justifiable framework for imperial rule.”

But that fake and ludicrous morality evidently did not quite work, for, as Mantena admits: “In the latter half of the 19th century, moral justifications of Empire, paradoxically, receded from the forefront of debates about the nature and purpose of imperial rule.

"At the height of British imperial power, an ethically orientated theory of imperial legitimacy, exemplified in the liberal model of Empire that had become prominent in British imperial discourse since the early 19th century, retreated in political significance.”

Vulgarity of power

There is, however, nothing paradoxical about the seesaw of liberal and naked imperialism.

They are the two sides of the same vulgarity of power.

This particular US presidential election is happening while its chief Zionist outpost in occupied Palestine is actively engaged in a genocidal project to murder as many Palestinians as possible in order to steal their land and expand the horizons of a major US imperial outpost.

Liberal or naked, US imperialism will continue to sustain that outpost in power.

Zionism in the US has opened for itself a shop with two doors at a crossroads of both liberal and reactionary imperialism. It makes absolutely no difference if Don the Con or Genocide Joe wins this race. 

Either way, they are covered by their relentless lobbying for their settler colony.

The crisis of liberal imperialism as we see it unfold in the US these days is symptomatic of the larger crisis of global politics - from the rise of neofascism in Europe, to the dysfunctional Arab ruling regimes, to the unleashing of genocidal Zionism in Palestine - where the scarcity of resources is exposing all the false claims to moral authority or political legitimacy.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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