Rehabilitating U.S. intervention

U.S. imperialism in the age of Obama

CONTRARY TO a widespread liberal misconception, U.S. imperialism does not change its strategies and goals with electoral turns back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans. “There was no fundamental break in foreign policy, as opposed to diplomatic mood music between the Bush One, Clinton, and Bush Two administrations,” writes Tariq Ali. “There has been none between the Bush and Obama regimes. The strategic goals and imperatives of the U.S. imperium remain the same, as do its principal theaters of operation.”1

The central goal shared by each of these administrations since the end of the Cold War has been to expand American power, prevent the rise of any potential rival, incorporate the world’s nation states into U.S.-managed neoliberal institutions, isolate and undermine rogue regimes that refuse to play by those rules, eliminate non-state actors that threaten U.S. power, and control regions whose instability can undo the smooth functioning of the capitalist system. The Middle East has continued, from one administration to the next, to be perhaps the most strategically important region, chiefly because it sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, and oil continues to be the lifeblood of the world economy. Virtually every U.S. intervention in the region is either directly or indirectly related to the question of control over the flow of oil.

The Bush administration was only an exaggerated version of this bipartisan consensus, taking advantage of the window of opportunity created by the 9/11 attacks to advance a more aggressive foreign policy around the doctrine of unilateral and preemptive action that, it was believed at the time, would allow the United States to use Iraq as a springboard to completely reorder its interests in the Middle East.

But the Bush administration overplayed its hand. The invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, initially touted as easy walkovers in which U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators, became protracted wars that bogged the United States down. Afghanistan has become a seemingly endless drain on U.S. resources, while Iraq failed to provide the pivot with which to reshape the Middle East. Moreover, as these occupations dragged on, the Bush administration (and the world) was hit with the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, putting new economic constraints on U.S. power. In his second term, Bush was forced to retreat from his doctrine of preemptive war and plans for rolling regime change in the Middle East, and instead adopted more conventional multilateral tactics to manage the intertwined imperial and economic crises.

Bush and the Republican Party became, however, damaged goods. So the U.S. ruling class entrusted Obama and the Democrats to restore American capitalism’s profitability and to rehabilitate American imperialism. Like his predecessor, Obama is pursuing these aims in a changing geopolitical context—the demise of the post–Cold War unipolar world system and the emergence of a new multipolar one.2 Over the last two decades, the neoliberal boom produced new economic powers that began to challenge the United States regionally and internationally. A revitalized Russia and rising China exerted influence on the world stage while other states like Brazil, India, and South Africa flexed their regional muscles. On top of that, mass movements against neoliberalism in Latin America elected left-reformist politicians like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Whatever their limitations in delivering fundamental change, these governments have bucked U.S. dictates in Latin America and have attempted to galvanize international opposition to American policies on everything from trade deals to wars and climate change.

Bush’s wars, which had been designed to strengthen U.S. power in the Middle East and Central Asia, have instead weakened Washington’s ability to shape events in both regions. Iran, one of the original targets for regime change, has emerged as the main beneficiary of the Iraq War. In Central Asia, rather than strengthening U.S. control, the occupation of Afghanistan has exacerbated conflicts between the United States and its long-term ally Pakistan and opened the space for Russia and China to lure former Soviet Republics into their orbit. Finally, the Arab revolutions brought down two U.S. allies—Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—and threaten several others.

The United States remains the sole superpower with the largest economy on the planet, an unrivalled military force, and the consequent capacity to shape the world system unlike any other nation state. But these crises pose a serious threat to that capacity, to which the Obama administration finds itself compelled to respond.

While he packs his speeches with idealist language, Obama is strongly influenced by the realist tradition of great power geopolitics. As the New York Times noted, “If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with tradition great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns.”3 Obama himself declared, “The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, and in some ways of Ronald Reagan.”4 Thus, instead of breaking from the imperial consensus or policies of Bush’s second term, Obama has adopted them. He packed his cabinet with Bush holdovers like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus as well as Democratic Party hawks like Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden.

Outlining his grand strategy in the National Security Strategy and Quadrennial Defense Review, Obama aims to use multilateral institutions to incorporate and subordinate international and regional rivals. In the National Security Strategy, he argues for the U.S. to focus its “engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests such as combating violent extremism; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; achieving balanced and sustainable economic growth; and forging cooperative solutions to the threat of climate change, conflict, and pandemic disease.”5

By building this international architecture to serve U.S. interests, Obama plans to police and discipline those states and non-state actors identified as U.S. enemies. Despite this multilateral strategy, he does not rule out the use of unilateral means (such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden) or bilateral agreements outside international institutions when the United States cannot get its way through multilateral action. Through this strategy of engagement, Obama hopes to secure a world order under U.S. management and in its interests.

Obama made it very clear that to maintain U.S. hegemony, he had to reach out to alienated imperial allies in Europe. He needed them to attempt to manage the global economic crisis. However, schisms over economic policy has made it very difficult to coordinate a common approach, as each state turns to “beggar thy neighbor” tactics. He also turned to European allies to help bolster the failing occupation in Afghanistan. But, faced with economic crisis and majority antiwar sentiment, Obama was only able to get commitments of small numbers of troops for the surge in Afghanistan.

Obama has attempted to reengage Russia and China to keep them from breaking free of the international order the United States has cultivated since the end of the Cold War. As Fareed Zakaria argues, “The single largest strategic challenge facing the United States in the decades ahead is to draw in the world’s new rising powers and make them stakeholders in the global economic and political order. Russia and China will be the hardest because they are large and have different political systems and ideological approaches to the world. Yet the benefits of having them inside the tent are obvious. Without some degree of great power cooperation, global peace and stability becomes a far more fragile prospect.”6

Thus, Hillary Clinton attempted to “reset” relations with Russia. Unfortunately, when she gave Vladimir Putin a large button emblazoned with what she hoped was the Russian word for “reset,” it turned out to be the word for “overcharge.”7 This diplomatic faux pas aside, Obama did manage to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreement and get Russia somewhat on board with the U.S. project to maintain the exclusive club of nuclear powers and sanction regional powers like Iran for trying to join it.

Obama has similarly attempted to incorporate and discipline China as it becomes a major potential rival. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon hoped to re-orient U.S. policy away from the Middle East and Central Asia to manage the rise of China in Asia. As Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker,

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama has adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention to Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”8

The United States, however, has been unable to refocus its attention because it continues to be preoccupied with its wars and military occupations in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Obama’s war in Afghanistan
Obama always stressed that the Afghan invasion and occupation—now the longest war in U.S. history—was a “war of necessity” against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies both within the country and across the border in Pakistan. But this was always a cover for deeper motives. The United States is engaged in a twenty-first century version of the nineteenth century Great Game between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia. Today Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Iran are jockeying for power over the region’s vast natural gas and oil reserves around the Caspian Sea and pipeline routes that will carry the precious commodities out to world market.9

The war in Afghanistan, however, has produced a disaster for U.S. imperialism. The United States has spent over $400 billion on the war. Nearly 1,500 American soldiers have died and close to 12,000 have been wounded. But Afghans have paid the highest price: tens of thousands of Afghans have died since the beginning of the occupation. The corrupt puppet government of Hamid Karzai lacks any popular support, the Taliban wages a guerrilla war and episodically controls many of the Pashtun areas of the country, and it finds a relative safe haven across the border in Pakistan where the government sees it as an ally against India in any battle for control of the country once the United States leaves.

After an intense debate within his administration in 2009, Obama announced his new policy in a sequence of speeches that could have been delivered by George Bush. While he has instructed his administration to abandon the rhetoric of Bush’s “war on terror,” which he has absurdly renamed “overseas contingency operations,” he mimicked Bush in almost every argument and phrase. “Al-Qaeda and its allies—the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks—are in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he warned. “Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged—that the country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many people as they possible can.” He went on to claim that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is for the American people “the most dangerous place in the world.”10

At West Point, he amped up the Bush-style rhetoric as he announced his decision to deploy 30,000 new troops to bring the total American force to about 100,000. Adopting General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy of deploying troops to occupy the country in an effort to win the population away from the Taliban, Obama has also attempted to build an Afghan state capable of becoming a stable ally of the United States. Washington has ploughed money into the construction of an Afghan military to replace the NATO and American forces, which are scheduled to begin leaving the country in July 2011. Obama has also deployed cadres of civilian advisors assigned to oversee rebuilding the Afghan economy. To ensure that the United States is able to control the country after withdrawal of troops, Obama is spending $1 billion to construct new embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan that will rival the enormous embassy in Iraq. The complex in Kabul will house the civilian cadres who will run Afghanistan like colonial overlords.11

By most accounts, however, the counterinsurgency strategy has been failing. Conn Hallinan reports that in December 2010, “The U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical success: ‘There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.’”12 On top of that, the United States’ European allies, under pressure from large majorities that oppose the war, are eager to pull their forces out of the NATO contingent.

Therefore, Obama has begun to pursue a “counterterrorist” strategy as plan B for the occupation. Obama was in fact always ambivalent about the counter-insurgency strategy. His increase of troops in Afghanistan is really “surge lite,” since, as Peter Bergen argues, “classic counterinsurgency doctrine indicates that Afghanistan needs as many as 600,000 soldiers and cops to protect its population of some 30 million.”13 Thus throughout his term in office, Obama has used counterterrorism tactics of air strikes and black ops to kill supposed al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, but this has inevitably led to the slaughter of growing numbers of civilians.

Over the last year, according to a U.N. study, civilian casualties have shot up by 20 percent. “U.S. airstrikes,” reports the Washington Post, “long controversial in Afghanistan because of the high incidence of civilian casualties associated with them, were the leading cause of civilian deaths by NATO forces, the report said. At least 162 civilians were killed in airstrikes and 120 were wounded during [the first ten months of 2010].”14 Overall, the Guardian reports, “Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have increased, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations creating the highest total since 2006 for civilian deaths—the continued annual rises has seen over 8,000 killed in the past four years.”15 U.S. air strikes and night raids on Afghan homes resulting in civilian deaths have become serious enough to provoke Karzai in late May to threaten “unilateral action” against the United States if it does not stop them. “If they continue their attacks on our houses,” he said, referring to U.S. forces, “then their presence will change from a force that is fighting against terrorism to a force that is fighting against the people of Afghanistan. And in that case, history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers.”16 The fact that a trusted, U.S.-installed puppet is forced to use this kind of rhetoric is indicative of the way in which U.S.-inflicted civilian deaths are angering the Afghan population. As a result of this rash of civilian deaths, the counterterrorist operations are undermining the counterinsurgency strategy.

Escalating the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan
Not only has Obama’s counterterrorism policy wreaked havoc in Afghanistan, but he has extended it into Pakistan, destabilizing the country with civilian and military casualties now exceeding 30,000, ten times the total killed on September 11.17 Obama authorized the CIA to escalate drone attacks inside Pakistan, often killing civilians in the process, enflaming opposition to the United States throughout the country. Obama ordered 120 drone attacks in his first two years in office, twice the number Bush did in eight years.18 He has also pressured the Pakistani Army to launch attacks into the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas against the Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, and terrorist groups Pakistan has used against India in occupied Kashmir. In just one example, the army incursion into Swat displaced over a million people.19

The Obama administration, however, has lost faith in Pakistan’s commitment to carrying through the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is therefore implementing its counterterrorist attacks unilaterally. In the most brazen example, when Obama ordered the extra-judicial assassination of bin Laden, he kept Pakistan in the dark about it and even prepared the Navy SEALs to engage in a firefight with the Pakistan military. In the event, the SEALs violated Pakistan’s sovereignty, broke international law, conducted a cold-blooded murder, took DNA tests to verify the kill, and then unceremoniously dumped the body at an undisclosed location in the ocean. Obama hoped to whip up support for his own failing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as use the threat of conducting similar assassinations against the Taliban leadership inside Pakistan to compel them to the bargaining table.

The assassination may dramatically backfire. While bin Laden never had widespread support in the Muslim world and has become at best an afterthought in the wake of the Arab Spring, his assassination has enraged Islamists against both Pakistan and the United States It has also put the U.S.-Pakistani alliance in jeopardy. After the revelation that bin Laden lived in Abbottabad right next to a Pakistani military base, Republican Senator John Boehner and Democratic Senator John Kerry have raised questions about continued U.S. funding of the Pakistani regime, given its weak commitment to fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistan has already threatened to strengthen its ties to China. In May, Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution declaring that the drone strikes were a violation of its sovereignty. They also threatened to cut the supply lines to American forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government then announced it had struck a deal to turn over the operation of the deep-water port in Gwadar to China not only for commercial purposes, but also for a naval base. While China quickly repudiated the story as false, Pakistan’s announcement demonstrates how frustrated it is with its U.S. paymaster. Moreover, America’s increasingly cozy relationship with India is only bound to enflame the conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. Obama is thus destabilizing the entire subcontinent.

The tilt toward counterterrorism
Obama will most likely depend more and more on the counterterrorism strategy as he prepares to draw down U.S. and NATO troops in the region. Without large numbers of troops, he will have to rely on his civilian overlords to run Afghanistan and drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has already continued and expanded the Bush administration’s use of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to conduct black ops to assassinate targets all over the world. He even authorized the assassination of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who is reported to be a leader in al-Qaeda, but has never been charged, tried, or convicted of any crime. Right after their successful assassination of bin Laden, Obama ordered a drone strike in Yemen to kill Awlaki. As Jeremy Scahill writes, “The primacy of JSOC within the Obama administration’s foreign policy—from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan—indicates that he has doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of U.S. foreign policy.”20

The shuffling of Obama’s defense cabinet confirms this increasing emphasis on counterterrorism. He shifted General David Petraeus from heading up the war in Afghanistan to running the CIA. This move will sideline the main advocate of counterinsurgency and the surge and put him in charge of an increasingly militarized CIA. Even before Petraeus was selected to head the agency, the Washington Post reported that, “CIA teams operate alongside U.S. special operations forces in conflict zones from Afghanistan to Yemen. The agency has also built up a substantial paramilitary capability of its own.”21Petraeus will increase the militarization of the CIA and will use it to conduct more drone strikes and black ops against designated targets.

The trajectory toward counterterrorism is also clear in the new Defense Authorization Bill now making its way through Congress. It would give the United States a blank check for military intervention against so-called “terrorist targets.” As former Republican Representative Bob Barr wrote, “What this latest language does is give the Obama administration and its successors preemptive permission to use military force against an alleged terrorist group, or even a country harboring them, based on some arbitrary, alleged association with al Qaeda or the Taliban. While the Obama administration has not asked for these expanded powers, neither is it offering firm opposition.”22

Rhetoric and reality in the Middle East
Obama promised to open a new era of cooperation in the Middle East. He declared in his famous Cairo speech that the United States was not at war with Muslims but with terrorists. He pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq, retreat from the attempt to change regimes in the region, engage Iran in negotiations, and compel Israel and Palestinians to the bargaining table to strike a peace deal that would culminate in two separate states. As usual with Obama, rhetoric and reality could not be further apart. In a manner indistinguishable from his predecessors, Obama has backed Israel, as well as various repressive Arab autocracies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain to ensure U.S. control of the region and its oil reserves at the great expense of its people. He also has continued Bush’s policy of imposing neoliberal reforms—privatization and the cancellation of state subsidies on important staples—on its Arab allies, enriching Western corporations and local ruling classes while impoverishing workers and peasants.23

The Bush administration had hoped to consolidate U.S. dominion over the region by toppling its enemies and imposing neoliberal democracies, using Iraq as a launching pad. But $800 billion later, it has managed only to create a human catastrophe in Iraq. Nearly 4,500 American soldiers have lost their lives and another 32,000 have been wounded in the process of imposing a brutal occupation of the country. But the main victims have been Iraqis. The U.S. occupation and the civil war it whipped up between Sunnis and Shias has led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis.24

While Obama criticized the war as a “war of choice” and promised to end it, he has reduced but not withdrawn American troops. He has retained 50,000 supposedly “non-combat” soldiers in the country and shows every sign of trying to keep them there after the scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2011. He is fearful that the government of Nuri al-Maliki is unreliable and may tilt toward Iran under pressure from the forces of Moktada al-Sadr. Even if Obama is unable to maintain U.S. troops in the country, he has a backup plan to ensure U.S. domination of the country. Just as he has done in Afghanistan, Obama has flooded Iraq with civilian colonial overlords that advise the Iraqi government and industry in the running of the country. These advisors find their home in the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which doubles as a military base.25

While Obama promised to engage with Iran over their nuclear program, he has actually continued Bush’s policy of isolating the country with punishing sanctions. Just as with Bush before him, Obama maintains nuclear hypocrisy as state policy; it’s all right for the United States—the only country to use nuclear weapons—and Israel to have such weapons, but not Iran. Moreover, despite his acclaimed support for democracy, he cultivated close relations with Sunni dictatorships and monarchies to encircle and contain Shiite Iran, thus expanding the civil war Bush initiated in Iraq into the region as a whole. This Sunni network aims to prevent Iraq’s slide into Iran’s orbit. Saudi Arabia gave $1 billion to Ayad Alawi, who, while a secular Shiite himself, formed an electoral bloc, al-Iraqiya, mainly backed by Sunnis.

Far from refraining from war, Obama launched a new one in Yemen. He used the cover of combating al-Qaeda to support the reactionary regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. He planned to funnel $1.2 billion in military aid to Saleh to build up his security forces to take out the small network of al-Qaeda militants in the country. The CIA has sent advisors and black ops forces into Yemen and also conducted a wave of drone strikes. The United States, however, has had other aims in addition to taking out al-Qaeda. It wants to secure control of the oil in the south of the country and protect the strategic shipping routes along its coast.

Obama has of course betrayed even the mild promises to address Palestinian grievances. As with every president since 1948, he has backed Israel as America’s loyal watchdog. Despite his verbal opposition to Israeli settlements, he has done nothing to curtail them and has failed to initiate even a sham peace process. He continued Bush’s policy of ostracizing Hamas, effectively endorsing Israel and Egypt’s blockade of Gaza. As a result, he has been complicit in what Oxfam and other aid groups have called the worst humanitarian crisis since Israel occupied the area in 1967. Over 70 percent of the population suffers from food insecurity.26

Co-opting the Arab Spring
Even though many analysts saw the Middle East as a cauldron ready to explode over a long list of political and economic grievances,27 the Arab revolution caught the Obama administration by surprise. Bush claimed he wanted to impose neoliberal democracy, really client states, in the Middle East. Now, in one of the great ironic twists of fate, the masses of the Arab world are rising to win real democracy from below, threatening the network of dictators Washington has cultivated for decades.

Initially, Obama stood by America’s strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt, until it became clear that they and their regimes had become untenable. He then accepted their departure but tried to get the revolutions to accept other figures to oversee a transition to democracy while preserving the core of the old state. As the United States did in Latin America, it hoped to sacrifice the dictators to save the state and preserve the neoliberal status quo.28 Thus Obama let Ben Ali slip away in Tunisia, because, while his loss was regrettable, the country is not that geostrategically important. He underestimated, however, the regional impact of a victorious revolution.

When the revolution spread to Egypt, by contrast, the Obama administration did not celebrate. Instead it defended Hosni Mubarak to the last gasp in an attempt to contain the revolutionary contagion. On PBS’s News Hour Biden defended Mubarak as “an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.... I would not refer to him as a dictator.” He also argued that it was wrong to compare the revolutions to those in Eastern Europe that toppled Russian-backed dictators in 1989.29

In Biden’s world, it is unimaginable that American-backed dictators are actually dictators and that they can be overthrown by popular revolution. But faced with stubborn facts, the Obama administration cooked up plans to resist the revolutionary wave. In Egypt, it first attempted to get the protesters to accept an “orderly transition” with Mubarak’s stooge and chief torturer Omar Suleiman as the head of the government. When that failed, it turned to the Egyptian military, which the United States has bankrolled for decades. While the Egyptian Revolution did topple Mubarak, it did not get rid of his state apparatus. Nevertheless the victory set another example that others in the region would imitate in their own countries.

Mass revolts spread to every corner of the region against both allies and adversaries of the United States. The Arab masses rose up Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, and sections of Saudi Arabia. The regimes responded with a combination of concessions and brutal repression. Saudi Arabia deployed troops into Bahrain to crush the revolt there. In Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened to drown the rebels in blood. The United States found itself trapped in a policy of double standards. They turned a blind eye to their strategic allies’ brutality, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the United States bases its Fifth Fleet, while condemning the violent repression of regimes they oppose.

The administration saw an opening in Libya to coopt the revolutionary wave by dumping their erstwhile ally Qaddafi. The United States, Britain, and France attempted to present themselves to the Arab world as allies of the revolution. They won support from the Arab League, no doubt through all sorts of bullying, to endorse a NATO no-fly zone, an ongoing bombing campaign, and now a war that is morphing into one focused on overthrowing Qaddafi. The Obama administration hoped to use the new war to redeem the United States in the eyes of the American population, which had celebrated the Arab Revolution. They also fantasized that they could convince the Arab masses that the United States was on their side.

This public relations campaign could not disguise the imperial aims of Washington and NATO. They wanted to get out in front of the revolutions, co-opt them, and ensure that the flow of oil would not be interrupted in Libya or anywhere else. Their humanitarian pretensions were blown sky high when NATO let sixty-one refugees die on a boat adrift in the Mediterranean. After a NATO helicopter found the boat, lowered food and water, and promised that a ship would return to save them, it flew off and no rescue ever came, leaving the desperate refugees to die of starvation and dehydration.30 Far from supporting the indigenous development of Libyan democracy, the U.S. has cherry-picked former members of Qaddafi’s regime to lead the rebel military and government, effectively hijacking the revolution. At best, these figures will head a neoliberal client regime in Libya. At worst, the United States and NATO will partition the country. Neither regime will fulfill the aspirations of the Libyan masses. But the oil will flow.

Scrambling to defend Israeli apartheid
The Arab revolution is being thwarted in Libya and savagely repressed in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. But it has not been crushed, except perhaps in Bahrain. In Egypt, the revolution has put enormous pressure on the new army-led regime which replaced Mubarak, for deeper social and political reform. Workers have staged one of the largest strike waves in the history of the country, demanding the dismissal of the “little Mubaraks”—the politically appointed bosses—in each workplace.

This mass pressure has forced the army to grant concessions, most dramatically in Egypt’s policy toward Palestine. Under popular pressure, the army regime struck a unity deal with Hamas and Fatah and then opened the border crossing at Rafah.

The Arab Revolution thus threatens not only the Arab dictators but also Israel. Already the Arab Spring has inspired Palestinians into struggle. On the anniversary of foundation of Israel, during which Israeli terrorists drove nearly a million Palestinians from their land, thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank attempted to return to their land in Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces responded just like the Arab dictators, gunning down non-violent protesters.

As a result, Israel is more isolated than it has been since its founding. It faces a Palestinian political leadership that aims to bring a resolution to the United Nations this fall for recognition of a Palestinian state. While the United States will attempt to prevent a vote and will certainly veto any resolution, it signifies the growing isolation of the United States and Israel. On top of that, the international movement against the blockade of Gaza and for boycott, divestment, and sanctions continues to draw broader and broader forces. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel is facing a “political tsunami.”31

In response, Obama gave yet another speech on the Middle East designed to recast the United States—the principal prop to Arab autocrats and Israel—as a supporter of the Arab Spring. While he softly criticized some of the Arab dictators for their repression, he did not mention Saudi Arabia’s religious police state and its invasion of Bahrain, which Washington green lighted. He even pulled his punches in his criticisms of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and his brutal crackdown on protests. The United States depends on him to maintain non-aggression toward Israel and, according to the New York Times, some officials hope to use the crisis to peel Assad away from his alliance with Iran.32

Obama’s call for Israel to renew the peace process, using the 1967 borders as the basis of negotiations, is meant to show a renewed seriousness to achieve a solution to the Palestinian problem. But he hedged this position in predictable ways, making it clear that these borders were subject to land swaps based on the Israeli settlements, thereby rewarding Israel’s ongoing seizure of Palestinian land. Obama continued to refer to Israel as a Jewish state throughout the speech. As Ali Abunimah wrote in the Nation, “if Israel has a ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’ then what can it legitimately do if Palestinians living under its control ‘violate’ this right by having ‘too many’ non-Jewish babies? Can Israel expel non-Jews, fine them, strip them of citizenship or limit the number of children they can have? It is impossible to think of a ‘remedy’ that does not do outrageous violence to universal human rights principles.”33Obama declared that any future Palestinian state would not have the right to have a military—a central component of any genuinely sovereign state—guaranteeing that it would unable to defend itself against the inevitable Israeli incursions.

In reality, Obama is not serious about the proposed negotiations; he has not even appointed a special envoy to replace George Mitchell, who recently resigned. “The United States will not put any pressure on Israel to change its behavior—such as forcing it to stop building settlements,” concludes Abunimah. “But Obama will continue to support lop-sided ‘negotiations’ between the local superpower Israel and a Palestinian Authority that is actually dependent on Israel for its mere survival (as Israel’s recent withholding of PA tax funds shows). No peace, let alone a just one, can emerge from such ‘negotiations.’”34

Neoliberal carrots
The Obama administration, by paying lip service to the revolutionary wave in North Africa, is attempting not only to limit the damage to U.S. interests in the region by ensuring that any transition keeps regimes in power that not only respect U.S. diplomatic and geopolitical interests (for example, ensuring in Egypt that any new government maintains friendly relations with Israel), but also remain committed to Washington’s neoliberal, free-market agenda.

This explains why Obama in his Mideast speech promised to rescind Egypt’s $1 billion debt, offered $1 billion in loans to the country supposedly to stimulate jobs, and promised that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will establish a $2 billion facility to support private investment. He followed this up at the G-8 summit, getting the group to promise $20 billion to be made available through multilateral development banks.

The Obama administration is attempting to win over bourgeois and petty bourgeois liberal leaders who, though they may have supported Mubarak’s exit from power, have a stake in the neoliberal reforms that have taken place in the Arab world over the last two decades.

The administration also aims to use U.S. funds to influence the young activists who participated in the revolution. In doing so, Obama hopes to win them over so that if they come to power they will be loyal allies, just like those who won the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe.

Obama declared that the United States must

broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future—particularly the young people. We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo—to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including to those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with—and listen to—to voices of the people.35

Such aid will be tied to the administration’s neoliberal agenda. As Obama declared in his Mideast speech, “The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness…. America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy.”36

To further these goals, Obama announced the establishment of a Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. He declared that the United States will “work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. And just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.”37

As Adam Hanieh argues, “the plethora of aid and investment initiatives advanced by the leading powers in recent days represents a conscious attempt to consolidate and reinforce the power of Egypt’s dominant class in the face of the ongoing popular mobilizations…. At the core of this financial intervention in Egypt is an attempt to accelerate the neoliberal program that was pursued by the Mubarak regime.”38

Finally, despite Biden’s denial that what’s happening in the Arab world is not comparable to the revolutions in Eastern Europe, that has now become Obama’s explicit model. He wants to hijack these revolutions and limit them to creating neoliberal democracies shackled in trade deals with the great powers. In Eastern Europe, that has led to mass impoverishment of the working class. As Soumaya Ghannoushi wrote in the Guardian, Obama’s “bid to reproduce the Eastern European scenario may be destined to fail. Prague and Warsaw looked to the U.S. for inspiration, but for the people of Cairo, Tunis, and Sana’a the U.S. is the equivalent of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe: it is the problem, not the solution. To Arabs, the U.S. is a force of occupation draped in a thick cloak of democracy and human rights.”39

The global economic crisis combined with an increasingly multipolar world order is ushering in a new period of conflict between powers. These same conditions are also provoking struggle from below by the masses of the world’s population against the inequality and misery imposed by the neoliberal Washington Consensus. It has produced the reform socialist governments in Latin America, the wave of strikes in Europe, and mass mobilizations in Wisconsin, and most importantly the Arab Revolution.

Obama’s grand strategy of engagement is designed to co-opt its international and regional rivals into the neoliberal capitalist order and quell any threat from below. Far from delivering peace and justice, Obama’s strategy has led him to oversee several wars, launch new ones, escalate CIA black ops, and organize a counterrevolution against the Arab Spring to preserve American control over the Middle East. After three bitter years, scholar Cornel West, who had loyally campaigned for Obama, has now concluded that the president is at best “the friendly face of American imperialism.”40

  1. Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome (New York: Verso Books, 2010), 38.
  2. For further analysis of this emerging world order see Dilip Hiro, After Empire (New York: Nation Books 2010).
  3. Peter Baker, “Obama puts his own mark on foreign policy issues,” New York Times, April 13, 2010.
  4. Ryan Lizza, “The consequentialist,” New Yorker, May 2, 2011.
  5. National Security Strategy, May 2010, 3, available at
  6. Fareed Zakaria, “Obama: Foreign policy realist,” Newsweek, July 21, 2008.
  7. “Clinton hits wrong reset button with Russia,” ABC News, March 6, 2009, available at
  8. Ryan Lizza, “The consequentialist.”
  9. For an analysis of this competition see Michael Klare, Blood and Oil (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), 146–179.
  10.  Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” March 27, 2009, available at
  11.  Saeed Shah, “U.S. to spend $1 billion on embassy expansion in Pakistan, Afghanistan,”Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 2009.
  12. Conn Hallinan, “Dispatches from the edge: The Great Game’s new clothes,” Berkeley Daily Planet, May 5, 2011.
  13. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Commentary: More troops needed for Afghan war,” CNN, August 4, 2009, available at
  14. Ernesto Londono, “Number of civilian casualties in Afghan war rises 20%, U.N. report shows,” Washington Post, December 23, 2010.
  15. “Afghanistan civilian casualties: Year by year, month by month,” Guardian, August 10, 2010.
  16. Ray Rivera, “Karzai gives ‘last’ warning to NATO on airstrikes,” New York Times, May 31, 2011.
  17. “Global war on terror claims 30,000 casualties,” Ummid, February 18, 2010, available at
  18. Klaus Brinkbaümer and John Goetz, “Taking out the terrorists by remote control,” Der Spiegel, November 12, 2010, available at
  19. Interview with Saadia Toor, “Behind the Nightmare in Swat,” Socialist Worker, May 22, 2009, available at
  20. Jeremy Scahill, “JSOC: The black ops force that took down bin Laden,” Nation, May 2, 2011, available at
  21. Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, “Petraeus would helm an increasingly militarized CIA,”Washington Post, April 27, 2011.
  22. Bob Barr, “Congress to expand war on terror,” May 23, 2011, available at
  23. For a fascinating analysis of U.S. neoliberalism in the Middle East, see Adam Hanieh, “Khaleeji-capital: Class-formation and regional integration in the Middle-East Gulf.’Historical Materialism, 18 (2). pp. 35–76.
  24. Ashley Smith, “The invasion and occupation of Iraq: An anatomy of an imperial war crime,” International Socialist Review, issue 55, November–December 2007.
  25. Michael Schwartz, “The liberal neocon,” International Socialist Review, issue 67, September–October 2009.
  26. “Gaza’s Humanitarian Crisis,” BBC, March 6, 2008, available at
  27. See for example Rabab El Mahdi and Philip Marfleet, Egypt; The Moment of Change (London: Zed Books, 2009) and Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
  28. For a discussion of this strategy in Latin America see James Petras and Morris Morley, Latin America in the Time of Cholera (New York: Routledge, 1992).
  29. Bridget Johnson, “Biden: Mubarak not a dictator; prrotest not like Eastern Europe,” The Hill, January 28, 2011, available at
  30. Jack Shenker, “Aircraft left us to die, say migrants,” Guardian, May 8, 2011, available at
  31. Attila Somfalvi, “Barak warns against a ‘political tsunami’,” YNet News, March 13, 2011, available at
  32. Mark Landler and Helene Cooper, “As uprisings transform Mideast, Obama aims to reshape the peace debate,” New York Times, May 18, 2013.
  33. Ali Abunimah, “Did Obama’s big speech offer any hope for Palestine?” Electronic Intifada, May 5, 2011, available at
  34. Ali Abunimah, “Did Obama’s big speech offer any hope for Palestine?”
  35. Barack Obama, “Obama’s Mideast speech,” reprinted in the New York Times, May 19, 2011, available at
  36. Barack Obama, “Obama’s Mideast speech.”
  37. Barack Obama, “Obama’ Mideast speech.”
  38. Adam Hanieh, “Egypt’s ‘orderly transition’? International aid and the rush to structural adjustment,” reprinted in this issue of the ISR.
  39. Soumaya Ghannoushi, “Obama, hands off ourspring,” Guardian, May 26, 2011, available at
  40. Cornel West, plenary speech at the Left Forum, March 18, 2011.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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