Obama and the Empire

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

Allen Ruff

AS BARACK OBAMA’s campaign shifted focus to battle John McCain following his victory over Hillary Clinton, various observers began to suggest that Obama had begun to “move to the center” in order to get elected. Supporters explained that shift as a necessary pragmatic step; others, airing varied degrees of disappointment, went so far as to suggest that he had somehow “lurched to the right.”

Despite such perceptions, Obama has certainly remained remarkably consistent in one area, namely the realm of foreign policy and his unflagging support for the U.S. imperial agenda. On the question of support for empire and the role of the United States in the world, the Democratic contender has barely budged. While sectors of liberal opinion and antiwar activists may feel disillusioned by his recent pronouncements, Obama’s record shows that those disappointed supporters have mainly engaged in self-deception.

In the New York Times of July 14, and in a major Washington speech the following day, delivered just ahead of a “fact-finding trip” abroad that included stops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel/Palestine and Europe, the Democratic candidate detailed the “five goals essential to making America safer” that he would pursue as president. He spoke of putting an end to the war in Iraq; pursuing the “war on terror” against al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban; ending U.S. oil dependency; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and “rogue states”; and rebuilding U.S. alliances.

With whatever minor refinements, those mid-July statements amounted to little more than the repetition of positions mapped out some time ago and articulated from the start of Obama’s campaign, most often to elite audiences in less public venues, and entirely within the mainstream of Democratic Party politics. While it remains impossible to know exactly what an Obama presidency would do to uphold and maintain U.S. imperial power, especially in the event of unforeseen new crises, nor how much he would continue George W. Bush’s obscene executive abuses of power under cover of the “War on Terror,” the candidate’s positions have long conveyed the clear message that there will be little, if any, change in the overarching strategic course and direction of the imperial state.

Obama’s candidacy is historic in its symbolism: the potential election of a Black candidate as the chief executive of the global superpower. It has nothing to do with challenging the “right” of that superpower to dominate the world — for the world’s own good, of course. Obama’s global outlook is firmly situated at the center of the long-established ruling-class consensus on the U.S. prerogative to intervene anywhere and at any time to make the world safe for capital, couched, as always, in the rhetoric of “freedom,” “democracy” and “stability.”

In this sense, he personifies a deep strand of liberal interventionism with roots extending all the way back to the early “progressive” imperialism of a Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Given the disastrous results of the Bush regime’s ideologically driven Iraq adventure and the impasse with Iran, however, Obama’s promised course appeals to most of the elites and the general population because it seems more “realistic” and less “unilateral.”

“Renewing American Leadership”

The Obama camp early on articulated its major foreign policy positions in the form of an address before the non-governmental and bi-partisan Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), historically the most important foreign-policy formulating body outside the State Department.

Disseminated in the pages of the bi-monthly Foreign Affairs, the CFR’s immensely influential “international relations” house organ, Obama’s speech laid out the framework and strategic vision for its intended audience, the elite who’s who of the foreign policy establishment. These included not only the upper echelons of the foreign relations and national security state bureaucracies, but also the corps of think tank and academic policy wonks, and most importantly, the key CFR patrons from the “commanding heights” of the corporate world. (Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007)

While certainly promising a change in direction from the current course of Bush failures and outright blunders, the piece very systematically promised to stay the grand strategic course of global predominance pursued by every President across the 20th century. At its heart, Obama’s strategic outlook pledged the continuation of a struggle to reclaim and guarantee U.S. imperial hegemony, euphemistically described as “leadership” throughout the CFR piece and elsewhere, in a world grown increasingly hostile to American domination.

This hostility is caused primarily, according to the candidate, by the arrogant unilateralist contempt for allies, failed diplomacy and mismanaged military adventurism of the Bush regime. Invoking Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy as the pantheon of a tough but enlightened liberal interventionism that supposedly carried the “torch of freedom” and the promise of “democracy” from World War II to victory in the Cold War, Obama promises a return to a pragmatic and rational revival of the United States as “the leader” of a “free world.”

Offering to reward friends (those in line with the U.S. agenda) and penalize foes (i.e. any opposition) and ready to “walk the walk” with an unsurpassed military to be augmented by tens of thousands of new soldiers, he assured his CFR audience of his willingness “to place boots on the ground” anywhere, with or (when necessary) without the support of those “partners” ready to follow the American “lead.”

Steeped in the rhetoric of an American global mission, Obama laid out a series of positions that must raise serious questions for those of his supporters who view authentic national self-determination and an end to imperial meddling as the prerequisites for lasting peace and a stable and a more just international order.

 “The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew. To see American power in terminal decline is to ignore America’s great promise and historic purpose in the world,” he explained. Early in his address, Obama highlighted a litany of 21st century threats and challenges:

“…They come from weapons that can kill on a mass scale and from global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism. They come from rogue states allied to terrorists and from rising powers that could challenge both America and the international foundation of liberal democracy. They come from weak states that cannot control their territory or provide for their people. And they come from a warming planet that will spur new diseases, spawn more devastating natural disasters, and catalyze deadly conflicts….”

Absolutely nowhere in this list of major international threats facing America was there a hint that the United States itself might have played a historic role, been directly involved or somehow complicit in shaping that dangerous world. Least of all is there any recognition that the American drive to dominate the world, including its energy resources, and the permanent war economy that is required for this, have anything to do with the looming catastrophe of the “warming planet”!

Rhetoric and national myth trump history. Couched in the post-Cold War discourse that defines “terrorism” and “rogue” or “failed states” as the major sources of global instability and insecurity, Obama’s entire essay assumes that the U.S. role has primarily been a positive force, the bulwark for “liberal democracy,” in a hostile world.

The fleeting reference to unnamed “rising powers” is interesting. The potential rivalries of an ascendant capitalist China and its Asian allies, or the Euro Bloc, Russia and India were not explicitly listed, but the elite CFR audience understands the meaning. Nowhere in the paper was there a hint of the economic underpinnings at the root of the U.S. imperial crisis — among them, increasing global competition, the demise of the dollar, monumental trade deficits, the quest to control vital resources.

On Iraq: “Responsible End”

Regarding specifics, the CFR address stated that as a necessary first step “to renew American leadership in the world,” the United States must bring the Iraq war to a “responsible end” in order to “refocus attention on the broader Middle East.” The central point: pacify the situation in Iraq in order to get on with the larger imperial project of winning and maintaining strategic control over the region and its oil reserves.

While failing to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq as the major source of violence in the country, and focusing on the Sunni-Shiite civil war that seemed so paramount at the time (July, 2007), Obama’s CFR address argued that Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis would most likely settle their differences without a U.S. presence – true enough, and an obvious argument for withdrawal.

Astoundingly, Obama then went on to suggest that the contending sides could be pressured toward an agreement by the threat of an imminent American withdrawal (as if the overwhelming majority of Iraqis do not want the U.S. occupation to end!)

He then spoke of a “phased withdrawal” of all combat brigades as “the only effective way to apply [such] pressure.” (He initially proposed March, 2008 as the commencement date.)

In keeping with decades-long U.S. Middle East strategic interest, Obama voiced opposition to a complete withdrawal from the region: While vowing to “make [it] clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq,” he stated “…we (sic) should leave behind only a minimal over-the-horizon military force in the region to protect American personnel and facilities, continue training Iraqi security forces, and root out al-Qaeda.”

At the time, he did not state where such an “over-the-horizon” force might possibly be stationed, perhaps since a place in the region where a sizable U.S. force might be welcomed could hardly be said to exist.

Obama’s more recent July, 2008 statements seemed to address that tough question by calling for a “phased redeployment of combat troops” but maintaining a “residual force” of upwards of 30,000 troops, left behind to pursue an ever-elusive “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” while continuing the training of the Iraqi military, and “to protect American service members” (a troop presence in order to protect the troop presence!). This sounds suspiciously like an updated version of the formula whereby Britain maintained semi-colonial control of Iraq from the 1920s all the way up to 1958.

Contingent on Iraqi “political progress,” the judgment of military commanders on the ground, and the possible “need to make tactical adjustments,” Obama now states that U.S. combat brigades currently in Iraq could safely redeploy within 16 months of his taking office. That would make it the summer of 2010. That’s hardly a firm commitment. And without said “political progress,” President Obama would have “no choice” but to carry on the war indefinitely.

Afghanistan: “Boots on the Ground”

Obama would move at least two combat brigades, some 10,000 soldiers, to Afghanistan. In his ’07 CFR address, Obama talked of increasing the number of “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan in order to “confront… terrorists where their roots run deepest.” Like any other tough-talking politician, he didn’t mention how many of those “boots” will wind up “in the ground” along with the soldiers wearing them — or the enormous casualties to be suffered by Afghan civilians.

Pledging to pursue the “real war,” the one against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in August, 2007 Obama openly spoke of military strikes against “high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan’s Waziristan province. “If we have actionable intelligence and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” he proclaimed. Perhaps Obama’s “inexperience” was showing, as this kind of outrageous violation of an allied nation’s sovereignty isn’t supposed to be explicitly acknowledged, let alone advertised in advance.

In July of this year, he called for “more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, [and] more Predator drones in the Afghan border region.” Convinced that “success in Afghanistan is still possible,” Obama would “pursue an integrated strategy” that would not only increase U.S. troop strength in the country, but would “work to remove the limitations placed by some NATO allies on their forces.”

“To defeat al-Qaeda,” the candidate promised, “I will build a twenty-first-century military and twenty-first-century partnerships as strong as the anticommunist alliance that won the Cold War to stay on the offense everywhere from Djibouti to Kandahar.” Neither Hillary Clinton, John McCain or George W. Bush himself could make a more explicit statement of unrestrained imperialist ambition.

How is all this supposed to be accomplished by a military virtually broken by the Iraq debacle? In his July, ’07 CFR speech and again a year later in Washington, Obama called for an increase in the strength of the Army by 65,000 and the Marines by 27,000. “I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests wherever we are attacked or imminently threatened,” he declared. His speech this July also called for a massive project, numbering in the billions, to build and stabilize the Afghan economy.

On Iran: “Force Beyond Self-Defense”

Obama promises no departure from the longer trajectory of U.S. policy toward Iran. The bottom line? Iran must concede to Washington’s demands on all fronts, halt its nuclear program, alleged “sponsorship of terrorism” and “regional aggression,” or pay the price through increased sanctions and, if need be, direct intervention.

Liberal pundits have noted and rightwingers denounced his declared willingness to “sit down and talk” with the leadership in Teheran, Damascus and elsewhere, but few have noted that such negotiations would be based on sets of preconditions and the constant threat of “real politic” penalties, the use of coercion and threat of force.

Obama has called for stronger international sanctions against Iran to persuade it to halt uranium enrichment. He co-sponsored the Durbin-Smith Senate Bill, the Iran Counter Proliferation Act, which calls for sanctions on Iran and other countries for assisting Iran in developing a nuclear program. He authored and introduced as the primary sponsor, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act in May, 2007. That bill would make it easier for state and local governments to divest their pension funds from companies that invest in Iran’s energy sector.

Divestment and sanctions for Iran, yes. Divestment and sanctions aimed at Israel’s nuclear weapons? Out of the question.

Interventionism will remain a key component of the Obama’s international “peace through strength” approach. As he put it, “We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense (emphasis mine —AR) in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability — to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities.”

Would it be too much to suggest that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was just such a “mass atrocity”? Or indeed that “military force in circumstances beyond self- defense,” essentially a restatement of the Bush preemptive war doctrine, is itself a violation of international law and an indictable war crime?

On Israel: “Unshakable Commitment”

Those hoping for a “sea change” in Middle East policy might look no further than Palestine and Israel.

Obama told us in 2007 that, “For more than three decades, Israelis, Palestinians, Arab leaders, and the rest of the world have looked to America to lead the effort to build the road to a lasting peace…. Our starting point must always be a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.”

In the Senate, he has unflinchingly supported increased economic and military aid to Israel and came out strongly in favor of Israel’s July, 2006 attack on Lebanon.

In speeches before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and elsewhere, he has consistently confirmed the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” and the “unwavering support” of Israel as a cornerstone of US Middle East policy. Feeling compelled to counter claims by critics and opponents, he has consistently voiced the belief that Israel’s security is “sacrosanct” and affirmed “an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel.”

In order “to secure a lasting settlement of the conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security,” Obama told the CFR elites, “we must help the Israelis identify and strengthen those partners who are truly committed to peace, while isolating those who seek conflict and instability.”

Barack Obama, unlike the current occupant of the White House, is not uneducated or illiterate. As the Chicago area Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah has recounted from his personal contact, Obama knows perfectly well that the Israeli Occupation is the real source of “conflict and instability.” His speech to AIPAC was more than a statement of obedience to the Zionist lobby — it was part and parcel of Obama’s loyalty oath to the empire and the fundamental continuity of Middle East policy.

Speaking at a Florida synagogue as recently as May 2008, he provided assurances of traditional positions on relations with Israel, promised an “unshakable commitment” to its security, praised the bond between the U.S. and Israel and declared he would not negotiate with Hamas and Hezbollah. Speaking before AIPAC immediately after clinching the nomination in early June, he promised that an “undivided Jerusalem” would “remain the capital of Israel.”

Did he not know that this pronouncement goes even beyond official U.S. policy, according to which Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel? What kind of message did talk of an “undivided Jerusalem” send to the Arab and Muslim masses, especially the faithful who look to the Al Aqsa Mosque/Dome of the Rock as the third holiest place in all of Islam? What kind of “change” does it suggest to them? What “promise” does it hold?

Cuba and Latin America

In a May 23rd speech before the Miami-based right-wing Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), Obama promised to maintain the existing trade embargo against the island “as leverage for winning democratic change.” He said he would lift restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island but would offer to start normalizing relations with the country if it released all political prisoners.

A “change” in direction, here? Not really, but rather a reversion to the Clinton administration’s position. The bottom line? The blockade will remain in place as will the U.S. insistence on “regime change” and a ceaseless opposition to Cuba’s self determination in place since the Kennedy era.

Obama has also promised a continuation of U.S. support for “regime change” in Venezuela, nothing more nor less than the reversal of the Bolivarian revolution. While his CANF speech spoke of the lack of democracy in Cuba, it seemed to suggest something else in regard to Caracas:

“…We know that freedom across our hemisphere must go beyond elections. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected leader. But we also know that he does not govern democratically. He talks of the people, but his actions just serve his own power.”

Much the same might be said of George W. Bush, except for the detail that Bush probably wasn’t ever democratically elected at all, but that’s not the Obama agenda. Voicing opposition not only to Hugo Chavez, but to the inroads in self-determination from Bolivia to Nicaragua, the July, 2007 CFR speech raised another concern:

“While the United States fails to address the changing realities in the Americas, others from Europe and Asia — notably China — have stepped up their own engagement. Iran has drawn closer to Venezuela, and just the other day Teheran and Caracas launched a joint bank with their windfall oil profits.”

Foreign powers meddling in the Western hemisphere? Horrors! (Would anyone be surprised if the would-be President were to invoke the Monroe Doctrine?)

A Way Forward?

In sum, Barack Obama promises to uphold the “national interests” of the U.S. imperial project. His promise of a reversion to Clinton-era policy but no actual change in the Middle East status quo; his talk of diplomacy reinforced always by the threat of military force “beyond self-defense” and unilateral interventionism; his call for “regime change” and counter-revolution in Latin America; none of these bode well, especially for all those still hungry for something more material than the rhetorical promise of “change.”

At the height of the Presidential primary season, Obama certainly captured the imagination and yearnings of a huge swath of the U.S. public. His historic campaign mobilized Black America, and whole strata of youth legitimately concerned about an increasingly uncertain future as well as vast numbers of people of color long hungry for a “sea change” in the direction of the country.

The Obama candidacy, perceived not only as longed-for relief from eight years of Bush-crowd rapaciousness, but also as a seeming departure from the corporate neoliberalism of the Democratic Leadership Council, also captivated the hearts and minds of many in the labor, environmental and peace movements.

The thought of John McCain certainly is frightening. No one on the Left would dispute that. Even among those outside the Democratic fold, the argument for “the lesser evil” has already become immense, even more so perhaps than with Kerry and Gore in 2004 and 2000.

There are those who have resurrected a line similar to the one put forward by those in 1964 who argued, “Part of the Way with LBJ.” And there are those enthralled with the fact of Obama’s historic campaign who have not gone beyond well-honed Kennedyesque poise and vigor, to examine his political substance.

So what do we on the anti-imperialist Left say to those masses of people, tired and rightfully fearful of the Republican agenda, who have placed their hopes in Obama?

Clearly, his foreign policy positions provide important messages for those who choose to engage in positive dialogue with his supporters. His designs for the revitalization and furtherance of the U.S. imperial project must also be placed front and center by advocates of independent political action and supporters of Green Party candidates Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente.

In either case, those critical of the U.S. role in the world must not be party to any illusion of substantive “change.” While an Obama Presidency would be impelled tactically to shift away from the outright warlordism and banditry of Bush & Co, there will be no strategic departure from the continued quest for U.S. global dominance and the imperatives of empire.

ATC 136, September-October 2008