The liberal neocon

The paradox of liberal foreign policy

WHEN IT comes to our country’s place in the world, from Annapolis to Cairo, Barack Obama has had much to say on issues ranging from American military “dominance” to peace in the Middle East. And yet, his most important and most revealing foreign policy speech may not have been given at Cairo University to the applause of much of the world, but at an unannounced moment on a news-dead early Friday morning two months ago. It was on March 27 when he stepped before the cameras and, even if few were looking, offered “A new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It’s a moment still not accorded its due and one to which it’s worth returning, given how fast events are moving in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and also—though it wasn’t his focus that day—Iraq.

On the face of it, the new policy the president laid out was a distinctly liberal departure from the goals of the Bush era, even if it did reaffirm the neo?conser?va?tive commitment to establishing Afghan?istan and Pakistan (now fashionably known as Af-Pak) as the eastern anchor of a dominant U.S. presence across what, in the Bush years, used to be called “arc of instability,” a swath of lands extending from the border of China to the horn of Africa.

That day, while proposing to continue the use of overwhelming “kinetic” force (that is, the power of the U.S. military) as the primary tool of foreign policy in the region, Obama proposes to augment it with ambitious “civilian” programs that, if successful, would project U.S. influence into every corner of life in the host countries.

Obama’s speech opened in a way that seemed to signal a drastic scaling down of the Bush administration ambitions in Afghanistan. These had, of course, once included transforming that country into a model parliamentary republic, bringing its culture into consonance with Western values, and transforming its devastated economy into a prosperous outpost of global capitalism. “I want the American people to understand,” the president said, “that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” To do this, however, he called for “a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy.”

Unlike the previous, inarticulate president, Obama is willing to explain just what, in his eyes, “comprehensive” means when it comes to the Af-Pak War. So the rest of that speech contained a surprisingly detailed list of mostly liberal programs, including: strengthening “democratic institutions,” guaranteeing citizens the “opportunity to live their dreams,” and improving the performances of both countries in “trade, energy, and economic development.”

While this expansive set of ambitions constitutes a “comprehensive strategy” for preventing al-Qaeda’s “return to either country in the future,” in light of recent developments, it’s hard not to believe that it goes far beyond this goal. In fact, Obama’s “comprehensive strategy,” when looked at in detail, actually expands the most ambitious goals of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Increasingly, the new program for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Iraq could be thought of as the initial sally of the liberal neoconservatives.

Liberal neoconservatism 
Obama’s proposals do contrast sharply with the Bush administration’s unrelenting reliance on warfare to accomplish social goals. After all, Obama promised a “dramatic increase in our civilian effort” in Afghanistan thus giving his policy an unmistakable liberal cast. Integral to this is an emphasis on “civilian efforts,” all meant to “help the Afghan government serve its people.” As he put it,

To advance security, opportunity, and justice—not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces—we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government… develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.

But here’s the catch: this program is not geared to work primarily through that same Afghan government. What Obama’s strategy suggests instead is far more ambitious. It involves nothing less than direct intervention by a large contingent of American civilian experts in every facet of Afghan life. In other words, like its neoconservative predecessor, Obama’s program is breathtaking in its ambition (or, depending on your point of view, hubris) in that it is designed to transform Afghan—and ultimately Pakistani—society into colonial outposts of the U.S. Empire.

The Bush administration assumed a two-stage process in which military conquest would inspire rapid social and economic transformation, with administrative responsibility for the newly developing society quickly transferred back to a compliant Afghan government. To judge by his March statement at least, Obama anticipates three stages: initial military pressure; overlapping with that, a period of American civilian-led reconstruction “from the bottom up”; and finally, the construction of an indigenous apparatus capable of helping to sustain the transformation—though there appears to be no time horizon for the locals to act without the presence and guidance of the U.S. administrative apparatus.

This expansive vision actually anticipates a U.S. presence in every nook and cranny of life. “It is,” as he put it, “far cheaper to train a policeman to secure their village or to help a farmer seed a crop, than it is to send our troops to fight tour after tour of duty with no transition to Afghan responsibility.” That, then, is what his program of civilian “boots on the ground” is meant to do: bring U.S. experts and administrators out of Afghanistan’s cities and towns into its rural areas where the vast majority of the population lives, even onto individual farms where a farmer will be helped “to seed a crop” other, of course, than the opium poppy.

Moreover, programmatic effectiveness will depend on constructing an administrative superstructure where the “civilian effort” is located:

The days of unaccountable spending, no-bid contracts, and wasteful reconstruction must end. So my budget will increase funding for a strong Inspector General at both the State Department and USAID, and include robust funding for the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

This administrative superstructure must also oversee the chronically corrupt Afghan government that will participate in many of these programs:

And I want to be clear: we cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders. Instead, we will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior, and sets clear benchmarks for international assistance so that it is used to provide for the needs of the Afghan people.

The Obama administration is intending to complement its military offensives with a vastly expanded administrative presence throughout Afghan society, from the inner workings of its political system (where U.S. officials will enforce “benchmarks” set by the U.S. and its allies for government activity) to the details of local farming (where U.S. technicians will teach Afghan farmers how to “seed” a non-illicit crop). To accomplish these goals, Obama proposes to erect a new infrastructure that will supervise the programs aimed at a “comprehensive” restructuring of Afghan life.

While the civilian emphasis of Obama’s plan sets it apart from the exclusively military strategies pursued by the Bush administration (where even economic programs were placed in the Department of Defense), the goals are by no means unfamiliar. The neoconservative ambition, to transform the political, social, and economic structures of Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Pakistan), remains intact. By promising to rely on civilian “boots on the ground” instead of military “boots on the ground,” Obama has invented what might be called “liberal neoconservatism.”

Colonialism in the 21st century
Obama’s program is also eerily familiar in another way. Nineteenth century colonialism, as practiced by England, France, and the other nations in Europe, conjoined military conquest with civilian “boots on the ground” designed to administer and transform the social and economic lives of the subjugated people, and then develop a client regime that could participate in sustaining the newly installed economic and social system. Obama’s program contains each of these elements.

Moreover, in the nineteenth century, the European colonialists portrayed and saw themselves as liberals. They envisioned their policies as efforts to replace backward economies with Western capitalism, reform corrupt and ineffective indigenous governments, and elevate the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Obama’s vision also contains each of these goals. 
In developing liberal neoconservatism, the Obama administration has rediscovered colonialism.

Actions speak louder than words
Words are cheap, as the Bush administration proved on a regular basis. In the last two months, Obama has supplemented his rhetoric with concrete expressions of his new policy. These actions are most visible in Iraq, where colonialism, instead of the expected withdrawal, is proceeding apace.2 Note, for example:

  • The completion of the largest embassy in human history, which will eventually house a 1,500-strong administrative apparatus larger than the legendary British colonial service during the height of British rule in India.
  • The continued occupation and building of the five “enduring” military bases in Iraq, fulfilling Obama’s campaign promise to maintain a “strike force in the region,”# and which—according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—will provide protection “for civilians who are out working in the Iraqi neighborhoods and countryside.”
  • The ongoing presence of U.S. officials in major Iraqi government ministries, tasked with the jobs of overseeing the various benchmarks set for the Iraqi government while restraining the well-publicized propensity for corruption.
  • The creation of a parallel set of institutions that will serve the ongoing (now mainly military, eventually mainly civilian) American presence, including proprietary electrical and water purification systems# as well as segregated roads that allow U.S. officials (military and civilian) to move quickly around the country without interference from Iraqi traffic, laws, and officials.

The projected U.S. role in Iraq is best captured by Christian Science Monitor reporter Jane Arraf’s interviews with on-the-ground military and civilian officials, who told her that “One of the challenges of that new relationship is how the U.S. can continue to wield influence on key decisions without being seen to do so.”

One State Department executive made it clear that these “key decisions” will be neither narrow nor short term:

The United States still has a role to play in promoting Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, tamping down Arab-Kurdish tensions, and fostering effective governance and economic growth—all of which have an impact on security.

It has to be seen here as doing it that you are not doing things for the Iraqis, the Iraqis are doing things for themselves but with your help and we remain in the shadows.... It’s a very delicate choreography.

Those currently administering the U.S. occupation of Iraq openly acknowledge the incompatibility of these plans with the official December 2011 deadline for U.S. withdrawal. As one “senior commander” told Arraf: “If our long-term goal is strategic partnership in Iraq, I would suspect beyond 2011 we would have some kind of long-term presence here.”

This well developed Iraq template is wholly consistent, not only with the vision expressed in Obama’s March 27 speech, but with concrete actions taken to implement it in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has, for one thing, begun the legislative process for authorizing the same kind of intrusive presence in Pakistan that he so carefully outlined for Afghanistan:

I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years—resources that will build schools, roads, and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan’s democracy. I’m also calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Maria Cantwell, Chris Van Hollen, and Peter Hoekstra that creates opportunity zones in the border region to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued by violence.

The inclusion of “opportunity zones” is particularly significant, since such platforms for foreign investment require both modern infrastructure and thorough security measures—that is, a permanent U.S. presence. The Obama administration has therefore announced a vast expansion of the Pakistan embassy, in order to “meet our future mission requirements.” With a price tag of $736 million (making it slightly smaller than the massive Iraqi embassy), it will be an appropriate headquarters for the long-term U.S. military-political-economic presence in the newly dubbed “Af-Pak” region.

But perhaps the most tangible sign of the ongoing implementation of Obama’s colonial vision is found in a report by veteran New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise headlined, “Afghan valley offers test for Obama’s strategy.” The yearlong “test case” for Obama’s strategy seeks to establish a comprehensive American presence in the Jalrez Valley:

In the painstaking business of counterinsurgency, security requires more than just extra troops. It means giving Afghans reasons to reject the insurgents by providing the basic trappings of a state—an effective police force, enough government services, and economic opportunity so they can work rather than fight.

With the military command structure substituting for the as-yet undeveloped U.S. State Department administrative apparatus, each local district in the valley has been allocated $500,000 for “projects like roads, bridges and cows for widows.” Soldiers in the tiniest outposts have hired local citizens “for $120 per month to guard their villages,” and they have begun to enforce a set of new rules designed to facilitate U.S. governance, including minute regulations that include forbidding such hard-to-control activities like “driving at night.”

U.S. military officials told Tavernise that the Jalrez Valley operation was a “promising early indicator” that the new strategy would be successful.

The Jalrez Valley operation is also “an early indicator” that the Obama administration is hard at work implementing the colonial administration promised in his March 27 speech. The myriad events in Iraq demonstrate that the same ambition is well underway there. The legislative process for commencing the process in Pakistan has also begun.

Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” In the twenty-first century the U.S. foreign policy has moved pretty fast: from conservatism to neo-conservatism to liberal neoconservatism. To keep up, we need to look around, or we will miss the big picture: that U.S. foreign policy is moving toward colonialism.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John