Obama’s Imperial Continuity

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

Allen Ruff

DESPITE THE RHETORIC of hope and promises of “change we can believe in” that ushered him into the White House, Barack Obama has offered anything but a marked shift in the fundamental course of U.S. foreign policy. The change Obama has brought — to the relief of U.S. and global elites — is away from the George W. Bush-era fantasy that U.S. military firepower and ideological muscle could unilaterally dominate the globe. But his underlying policy goals are very much in continuity not only with Bush but with a century of his predecessors.

For those ruling elites deeply concerned with the challenges facing the U.S. economy on the global scale and wary of the unilateral adventurism of the preceding eight years, Obama appeared to offer a more “winnable” approach to maintain U.S. “leadership” and advance “national interest.” He never promised a departure from the mainstream currents of U.S. global reach, despite rhetorical flourishes to captivate those who, tired of Bush-Cheney, had somehow come to imagine otherwise or who weren’t paying close attention.

There certainly was talk of a new multilateralism prior to and immediately following the January 2009 inauguration. In a signature move, the new administration moved away from Bush’s extreme and absurd provocation of stationing “missile defense” on Russia’s borders, signaling at least that Russia would no longer be treated with arrogant contempt.

This was accompanied by calls for renewed cooperation with traditional European allies and the stated willingness to dialogue with the formerly demonized “rogue states” Iran, North Korea and Cuba. Those speeches always offered junior partner status to friends old and new, and a negotiation starting point of “an offer you can’t refuse” for perceived adversaries.

The new administration has kept one campaign promise. It scaled back and redeployed the number of ground troops in Iraq (now “only” 100,000 with an equal number of contractors) and shifted the imperial war effort and attention toward the “right war” in Afghanistan. President Obama increased the number of “boots on the ground,” escalated drone attacks and pressured Pakistan’s dependent Zardari regime to move against al-Qaeda and the domestic Taliban in what’s now commonly referred to as the “Af-Pak theater.”

On the western front the Israelis under Benjamin Netanyahu, feeling safe in their assumptions of unwavering U.S. support, proceeded with new settlement construction in the West Bank, the crippling siege of Hamas-governed Gaza, and the ongoing cooptation of the Palestinian Authority.

The crisis that has erupted over settlement expansion in East Jerusalem came about when Israel’s government miscalculated, blatantly disregarding America’s need to preserve the appearance of a “peace process,” even one that never brings peace.

Following some initial public talk of  “a willingness to sit down” with Iran, the administration has “stiffened resolve” against an Iranian regime which remains determined in its right to proceed down the nuclear path but is fractured internally by deepening leadership fissures, social tensions and political protest. White House calls for increased international sanctions against Iran are strengthened by its more multilateral, less frighteningly, militarist stance.

Backward Beyond Bush-Cheney

Obviously the complex problems for the U.S. imperial project in Southwest and Central Asia are not of Obama’s making. But the current administration’s global posture can best be understood in a context extending far beyond the Bush-Cheney years. It must be viewed as a continuation, in no way a departure, of that longer quest for U.S. global supremacy dating to the beginning of the 20th century. Obama’s espoused liberal interventionism certainly harkens back to John F. Kennedy, if not all the way back to Woodrow Wilson.

Among global strategists embedded in what is now commonly referred to as the National Security State bureaucracies, there has long been a foreign policy consensus, shared since World War II, regarding the geo-strategic value of the “Greater Middle East.” State Department planners, their strategic sights fixed on supplanting British and French colonial rule in the oil rich Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, mapped a course for U.S. postwar imperial power even as World War II raged.

Already certain of victory and unassailable postwar strength, they soon turned toward the creation of strategic alliances with compliant regimes, bolstered with economic aid, arms and intelligence, to hamper authentic independence and social revolution in the region and to block any advances by the wartime-allied Soviet Union.

Publicly articulated as defense against an expansionist Russia, the 1947 Truman Doctrine, announced at the height of crises in Greece and Turkey proclaimed the right to intervene anywhere in the region “in defense of freedom.”

In the early postwar years, various independent nationalist movements including those of Mossadegh’s Iran or Nasserite Egypt, often painted in the Cold War monochrome of “red,” were depicted as inimical to U.S. interests. Through the creation of the short-lived Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) among the signers of the 1955 “Baghdad Pact” — Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, and Great Britain which was already a junior partner — Washington backed an alliance of regimes forming a regional “northern tier” on the Soviet Union’s southern flank.

That decade also witnessed the 1958 incursion of 14,000 U.S. troops into Lebanon, sent ashore to bolster minority Christian Maronite predominance in a heightening internal conflict. To justify the move, the White House invoked the Eisenhower Doctrine which proclaimed a U.S. right to intervene in countries threatened by “international Communism.”

The following decade saw the beginning of the massive turn toward Israel as the 1967 war dealt a devastating blow to regional pan-Arabism and secular nationalism.

Carter Doctrine and “Arc of Crisis”

Current policy continues to be defined largely by that longer-term projection of U.S. power into the broader region. Most significant for our current understanding is the Carter Doctrine, articulated in 1980. Proclaimed in his State of the Union Address in January of that year, Jimmy Carter’s strategic policy pronouncement pledged to uphold U.S. “vital interests” in the Persian Gulf region by “any means necessary, including military force.”

This came in the immediate aftermath of the fall of U.S.-installed Shah Reza Pahlavi’s Iran dictatorship, at the time a heavily armed Cold War client on the Soviet Union’s southern frontier and a surrogate “regional gendarme” of counterrevolution. It also followed close on the heels of the Soviet military intervention in landlocked Afghanistan. Carter’s address portrayed this move as a first step in the Soviets’ quest for a warm water port via Pakistan, rather than an attempt to bolster a bordering client regime made increasingly unstable by the spread of an Islamist insurgency that was already receiving covert U.S. assistance.

Key architect of the Carter Doctrine was his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the “realist” rival to the Republican favorite, Henry Kissinger. By the later 1970s, prior to the Shah’s ouster and the Soviet military move into Afghanistan, Brzezinski had described an “arc of crisis” spanning north and eastward from the Horn of Africa, extending from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, across the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, and eastward through Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Brzezinski saw the vast area as absolutely vital to the U.S. “national interest” and under threat from secular, left-led nationalist or pan-Arab revolutionary movements under the sway or potential influence of the main Cold War rival.

Strategically pivotal was the Persian Gulf, outlet for a major portion of the world’s oil supply. This region, understood as essential to the capitalist world economy and “well-being” of “the West,” was now seemingly threatened by the “loss” of Iran and potential instability in allied Saudi Arabia.

A strategist with a constant eye on the “Great Game,” Brzezinski also viewed Central Asia in geo-strategic terms as a contested “core area” crucial to U.S. hegemony, to be secured and held from competing imperial rivals, present and future.

At the time Carter announced his doctrine, the United States was still reeling from the defeat in Vietnam. Its capacity to intervene militarily was politically hampered at home by the “Vietnam syndrome,” that deep-seated mass reluctance to send U.S. troops into combat. The end of the Cold War draft, won as a concession by the Nam-era antiwar movement, also constrained the ability to intervene.

In the Middle East and elsewhere there had already been a turn, begun under the “Nixon Doctrine,” toward the massive arming and military assistance to reactionary regional proxies, notably the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf and including “regional lynchpins,” non-Arab Israel and Turkey. The Carter-Reagan presidencies also featured the turn toward “low intensity warfare” — the often clandestine support of counter-revolutionary surrogate forces globally — in the name of “security” and “stability.”

One result was the infamous “Iran-Contra Affair” — that mid-1980s web of illicit weapons sales to Iran, then at war with Iraq, and illegal funneling of resulting revenues to the U.S.-backed Contras attacking the Nicaraguan Revolution. Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was then a key player as deputy to Reagan’s CIA Director, William Casey.

In response to the Iran crisis but with no significant military capabilities in the region, the Carter administration moved to create a tactically mobile Rapid Deployment Force capable of extinguishing global “brush fires.” The RDF eventually morphed into United States Central Command (CENTCOM), to this day militarily “responsible for US security interests in twenty nations of the Middle East and Central Asia” and currently under the command by General David Petraeus.

The Reagan years witnessed the funneling through Pakistan of massive U.S. support of arms and money to the then “valiant rebel freedom fighters,” the Afghan muhjahideen and international jihadis (among them Osama bin Laden), fighting the “good jihad” against the Soviet “Evil Empire.” Meanwhile to the west, the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war, initiated by a U.S.-assisted Saddam Hussein, took well over a million lives.

The “Shia Crescent”

With the implosion of the Soviet bloc, the major public justification for U.S. intervention across the “arc of crisis” — the threat of “Evil Empire” subversion and aggression — also disappeared.

So too did former East bloc material support, often erratic but real, for various secular nationalist and “anti-imperialist” movements. Their decline paralleled the ascent of Islamist formations such as the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad over an Israeli-defeated Palestine Liberation Organization.

Importantly, as the older rationales for continuing U.S. presence across the region vanished, new forms of resistance, mainly Islamist in form, moved to the fore. Unresolved crises, created in large part by the imperial project with all its legacies of uneven development and cultural intrusion, exacerbated further by unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the backing of repressive allies from Cairo and Riyadh to Kabul and Islamabad, led to further instability, new interventions and ongoing conflict.

The 1991 Gulf War, coming just as the Soviet Union imploded, placed a U.S. land army in the Arabian Peninsula. That military incursion came not just as a response to Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait land grab, but also as the first major test of U.S. power in the post-Cold War world: an assertion of U.S. might in the Gulf and “national resolve” to uphold the Carter Doctrine.

President Bush the Elder at the time proclaimed that the “Vietnam Syndrome could finally be laid to rest,” and that “America could once again stand tall.”

Then, with the Soviet “Red Menace” gone and communism seemingly relegated to “the end of history,” planners and ideologues spent more than a decade casting about for ways to redefine “American mission,” the best way to gain domestic and foreign support for an imperial project facing new global challenges. The “war on drugs” was tried, as was “humanitarian intervention.” The latter, used by George Bush I and his successors in the Clinton administration as the justification for sending an ill-fated contingent of 28,000 U.S. troops ashore in Somalia in 1993, became the primary rationale for the U.S.-led NATO coup de grâce to the former Yugoslavia.

But while it portrayed U.S. benevolence in favorable light, “humanitarian intervention” lacked the mobilizing capacity of earlier Cold War explanations. Its claims were contradicted by Clinton’s concurrent punishment of Iraq, the dual campaign of unabated air strikes and devastating sanctions, intended to force “regime change” from within.

Throughout the ‘90s, the older Cold War rhetoric of the “arc of crisis” was gradually refurbished and expanded upon to reemerge as the “arc of Islam.” Political Islam and “fundamentalism” replaced “communism” as the sole explanation for increasing unrest, instability and “terrorism” extending from Morocco and Algeria in the west to Indonesia and the Philippines in the east. The new peril to the Arab Middle East became an Iranian-backed Shiite militancy extending across a “Shia Crescent.”

With the shock and trauma of the September 11th attacks, the “war on terror” moved to the fore to mobilize support and justification for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the subsequent war and occupation of Iraq, and the related increase of surveillance and contraction of civil liberties and constitutional guarantees at home.

The Bush-Cheney administration’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric initially targeted Iran, North Korea and Syria, none of which had anything to do with Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, as “state sponsors of terrorism” while it ignored the state terror of regional allies, most notably Israel but also including Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The “Bush Doctrine” turned to “preemptive war,” the unilateral right to militarily intervene against any regime of “failed state” posing a potential or perceived future threat. It ended, as we know, in disaster.

And Then Came Obama…

While promising change, Bush’s successor has displayed a ready willingness to utilize and adapt much of the rhetoric of his predecessors. Certainly not about to appear “soft” on the “war on terror,” Barack Obama as Commander-in-Chief and Imperial CEO has clearly delineated a foreign policy entirely in keeping with the long-established focus on U.S. global supremacy.

In three major addresses — at Cairo in early June, 2009 and then in quick succession at West Point and Oslo in December — Obama readily displayed the commitment to U.S. supremacy in a rapidly changing multi-polar world.

Delivered to a highly vetted audience in the sealed-off space of Cairo University, the June speech, while intending to set a tone of “not-Bush” reconciliation to the Muslim and Arab worlds, in large part reproduced  in “kinder, gentler” form, the “clash of civilizations,” the Neoconservatives’ overarching explanation for the antagonisms between “the West” and Islam’s adherents.

While referencing a number of other sources of conflict and instability — among them colonialism and Cold War, “modernity,” “globalization” and “violent extremism” — Obama primarily portrayed the main sources of tension in cultural and religious terms and called for a coming together of “all people of good faith.”

In continuity with his predecessors, and not about to discuss U.S. strategic determination to remain hegemonic across the Greater Middle East, he described U.S. actions as if America were a reluctant victim once again forced to take action.

The Purple Prose of Cairo

In perhaps the most remarkable section of the Cairo address, Obama delivered a homily of sorts that must have seemed incredibly contradictory if not ludicrous to any listener attuned to Middle East history and present realities. While reaffirming unconditional support for Israel and a call for a return to the “road map,” he stated that, “The Palestinians must abandon violence.” Silent in regard to Israel’s disproportionate use of its military might and collective punishment, he asserted — only minutes after stating that the United States had its own origins in a justified rebellion against empire — that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.”

At a time when the new administration had already increased the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan through the escalating use of drone attacks, he went on to assert with no Orwellian subtlety lost: “violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children…That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.” As if those in the West Bank and Gaza or languishing in the refugee camps of Lebanon were somehow primarily responsible for their own plight and should not resist by any means necessary!

Conveniently avoiding Bush’s fraudulent claims about weapons of mass destruction to justify the Iraq war, Obama stated that the invasion and occupation of that country occurred solely to depose the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and that it left “the people of Iraq better off.” The Cairo address called for democracy (certainly the irony there could not have been lost among some of his audience of hand-picked Egyptian students), religious tolerance, women’s rights and nuclear arms control, with pointed comments aimed at Iran and no reference to Israel’s existing nuclear arsenal.

From West Point to Oslo

Obama formally announced another troop increase to Afghanistan, his second since coming to office, in a nationally televised presidential address delivered not from the Oval Office, but before the Cadets at West Point.

Although not appearing on an aircraft carrier deck in a flight suit, he repeated the “war on terror” trope of a menacing al-Qaeda, now abetted by a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the sole reason for escalating the U.S.-NATO war in Central Asia. “What’s at stake,” the Commander in Chief told us, “is not simply a test of NATO [meaning U.S.] credibility…but the security of our allies, and the common security of the world.”

Here we have once again a replay of the constant themes used to justify U.S. imperial interventions across the breadth of a century or more: the defense of an ally’s freedom and democracy from outside threat coupled with national security concerns. No mention of inconvenient realities about the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, American-installed, riddled with corruption and subsequently “reelected” in a massively fraudulent pseudo-election.

It was in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech at Oslo that Obama clearly laid out the direction of his presidency. He pointed to the contradictory irony of receiving the award while waging two ground wars of occupation in Asia. His war-is-peace address, while draped once again in the rhetorical flourishes of a revived liberal internationalism, served primarily as public relations justification and statement of imperial purpose to the rest of the world.

Couched in universal terms laden with the liberal interventionist moralism of a Woodrow Wilson or John Kennedy, the speech actually contained an air of imperial realism. At its center stood a call to redefine the notions of “just war” doctrine for use in legitimizing present and future armed interventions.

Obama cited the components of the longstanding set of principles, the basis of the UN Charter and older international accords — that force be used as last resort or in self-defense; that it be proportional and that civilians be spared “whenever possible.”

He then went on to speak of new global situations — the threat of civil wars, among them — requiring redefinitions of the concept. While differing in tone from the “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” of the preceding administration, Obama reiterated “the right of the United States to act unilaterally when necessary” (without defining who or what might define such “necessity”).

To provide international legitimacy for the escalating war in Afghanistan, he praised the current incarnation of the “coalition of the willing,” the 43 self-interested allies and lesser supplicant states gathered under the NATO banner. In truth, if the original rationale for the existence of NATO was that of Western Europe’s “protective shield” against “Soviet aggression,” then it should have disbanded long ago.

Obama at Oslo gave a remarkable and revealing historical sketch of the post World War decades when “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace.” He cited the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of a capitalist Western Europe under U.S. aegis, and the United Nations, long utilized by the United States when necessary and otherwise bypassed and ignored, as crowning achievements of the era.

A similar chord was struck in Obama’s Cairo speech, where he finished up with calls for mutual interest in cooperation in “economic development and opportunity,” a “broader engagement beyond concerns for oil” and requisite appeals for improved trust, friendship and increased scientific, educational and cultural exchanges.

This a refinement of the “Open Door,” that centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the 20th century, first and foremost meaning American corporate access to markets everywhere. For an example of the progress and benefits this has brought, see Haiti.

War Is Peace

In Oslo, bypassing the long history of U.S. interventions on the side of dictatorship, numerous anti-democratic destabilization efforts across the planet (Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, Cuba in the 1960s) and various proxy wars (Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 1980s among them), the Peace Prize Prez stated: “America has never fought a war against democracy and [that] our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.”

The Korean War and Vietnam, and the nature of the U.S.-sponsored regimes in both, disappeared from memory, as did the present-day close friendships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Afghanistan — interesting examples of “governments that protect the rights of their citizens” — and Israel whose 43-year record in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is in constant violation of human and democratic rights.

At the very time when the U.S. military was busy increasing the number of civilian casualties in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Commander in Chief could state without flinching,

“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight.”

As the Imperial President drew to a close at Oslo, he noted that, “…No Holy War can be a just war.” He of course was referring to those Islamist elements, among them former allies now defined as “extremists.” He failed to address that other “holy war,” largely wrapped in the moralist secular garb of American mission, that ongoing pursuit and maintenance of U.S. strategic advantage in the “Greater Middle East” and elsewhere, the armed defense of global hegemony, an old world order now increasingly challenged economically if not militarily.

The world is a different place than during the Cold War. No longer divided between a capitalist “West” and the so-called “really existing socialism” of an “East,” the globe has divided into intertwined yet increasingly rival economic blocs — an ascendant Chinese growth engine with its East Asia sphere and expanding global reach, the European Union led by a unified Germany, a Russia back on its feet and a developing India — all of serious concern to U.S. capital.

Across the “Global South,” in Latin America and elsewhere, various “breakaway republics” no longer fully under superpower sway have slowly moved toward regional partnerships. The Obama administration has successfully eased Honduras back into safe channels, through a military coup and a pseudo-electoral transition to a new regime, keeping the repression and murder of popular activists mostly out of the headlines. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, however, are harder to bring under control.

Other nations in Africa and the global South, still strapped by the legacies of colonial and neocolonial underdevelopment made worse by the recent global downturn and deteriorating environments, remain in a state of abject dependency to the capitalist centers. New instabilities, conflicts and forms of resistance, at their heart the result of imperial penetration, abound. Therein lie the challenges faced by U.S. ruling circles and their Imperial President as they seek those changes, advantageous for empire, they can believe in.

ATC 146, May-June 2010