FACING ITS biggest imperial crisis since the Vietnam War, and its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the US ruling class entrusted Barack Obama to strengthen and restore the legitimacy of US foreign policy. Obama has attempted to do so in two distinct phases over the last four years. In the first phase, he essentially continued the policies of the second Bush administration, attempting to resolve the disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan on favorable terms. He also sought to reestablish friendly diplomatic relations with allies in “old” Europe, as well as reengage competitors like China and Russia.
The United States remains the world’s largest economy, with far and away the world’s biggest military footprint. But despite the administration’s best efforts, the United States continues to suffer relative economic decline against its competitors, particularly China. In response, the Obama administration has initiated a second phase of its foreign policy. In its January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, entitled “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,”1 the Defense Department has sharply focused on two key priorities. First, in a long-term reorientation of US imperialism, Washington aims to confront China’s rise. Second, over the short term, it hopes to reassert US hegemony in the Middle East by rallying international and regional allies against Iran, the unintended victor of the Iraq War.
In announcing this second phase, Obama has introduced a significant shift in Washington’s grand strategy of global domination. He has incorporated into it many elements of offshore balancing to contain and deter China, which is already an economic superpower and threatens to become America’s chief rival.
US commitment to a unipolar world order
To understand the new orientation, we have to look at what the United States tried to accomplish in the aftermath of the Cold War. The foreign policy establishment has adopted what political scientist John Mearsheimer calls a grand strategy of global dominance.2 Others have called it American hegemony over a unipolar world order.
In this period, US imperialism has aimed to expand its power, prevent the rise of any superpower rival, incorporate the world’s nation-states into US-managed neoliberal institutions, isolate and undermine rogue regimes that refuse to play by those rules, eliminate non-state actors that threaten US power, and control regions whose instability can undo the smooth functioning of a US-supervised world system.
Within this strategic consensus, there have been tactical differences between liberal and neoconservative imperialists. Liberals such as Bill Clinton still launched wars, but emphasized using international institutions before acting unilaterally, which they were more than happy to do if they thought it necessary. Neoconservatives such as George W. Bush have by contrast advocated unilateral use of the military, and have been suspicious of international institutions, which they see as restricting America’s ability to act. But they too have used such institutions when they found it convenient.
In pursuit of global domination, the United States has acted to ensure its control of Eurasia, the heartland of the world’s economy and its state system. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Adviser in the Carter adminstration, put forward the basic approach in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: “The three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.”3
Following this blueprint, the United States has sought to incorporate its advanced capitalist allies, such as Germany and Japan, as junior partners, and has done the same with rising powers like Brazil and India in the developing world. In particular, it has attempted to remake the Middle East so that it can better control both its allies’—and rivals’—access to the region’s vital energy resources. Those “barbarians” or “rogue states” that it could not integrate—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—it has sought to crush through war or isolate through sanctions.
Such blunt imperialism is a hard sell. To justify it, the United States resurrected the old liberal tradition of “humanitarian imperialism,” seeking support for each of its wars from the Gulf War to Kosovo and Libya on the grounds that it was protecting victims of state repression. It has convinced the United Nations, an institution supposedly founded on the idea of the right to national self-determination, to adopt the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005. This doctrine provides legal justification for the UN to endorse military interventions under the cloak of humanitarianism.
Bush and the crisis of US imperialism
At the start of the new millennium, the United States was at the apogee of its reign as the world’s sole superpower. But already the cracks were showing in its imperial order; its economy was stagnating while China and other rivals were booming. The Bush administration hoped to consolidate US global domination through wars in Central Asia and the Middle East.
The 9/11 attacks were a godsend to justify this project. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it:
[A]n earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics. The international system has been in flux since the collapse of Soviet power. Now it is possible—indeed probable—that that transition is coming to an end. If that is right, if the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 bookend a major shift in international politics, then this is a period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity. Before the clay is dry, America and our friends and allies must take advantage of these opportunities.4
Bush attempted to seize this moment to ensure a “New American Century.” He proclaimed his doctrine of preemptive war and designed his National Security Strategy to prevent the rise of a peer competitor or rival block of powers, especially one centered on the world’s strategic energy reserves. He had already designated China as a “strategic competitor.” The United States invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda, overthrow the Taliban, impose a quisling government, and establish military bases in Central Asia to ensure American control over Caspian Sea oil and natural gas, as well as encircle China and Russia.
The Bush administration then went on to Iraq, which it hoped would be the first of a series of regime changes to install US-friendly governments in Iran and Syria. With the region under its thumb, the United States could dictate terms to all powers, especially China, that depend on Middle Eastern oil.
This Middle East gambit backfired. Instead of becoming launching pads for power regionally and internationally, the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq bogged the United States down and squandered its resources. In the process, Bush isolated the United States from its traditional European allies and emboldened America’s rising imperial competitor, China, and various lesser opponents from Russia to Venezuela. The global slump exacerbated the relative decline of US imperialism against that of China.
In his second term Bush retreated from unilateralism, abandoned his plans for rolling regime change in the Middle East, and attempted to heal wounds with European allies. Suspending his unflinching faith in the free market, he used the government to bail out the banking system.
Bush and the Republican Party, however, had proved themselves to be incompetent agents for advancing American imperialism. They compromised its position of international dominance. They also undermined domestic support for deploying US ground troops in foreign occupations. After several administrations had chipped away at the “Vietnam Syndrome,” they resurrected it in the form of a new “Iraq Syndrome.”
Obama rehabilitates the empire
The ruling class turned to Obama to overcome this profound crisis in US power. Contrary to popular misperception, Obama was never a “peace candidate” nor did he ever intend to be a “peace president.” He has increased military spending, which surpassed $700 billion in 2011, deployed 30,000 troops in his surge into Afghanistan, expanded that war into Pakistan, tried to bully Iraq into allowing an extension of the American occupation, increased drone and black operations in Yemen and Somalia, and launched the NATO air war to topple Washington’s one-time ally Muammar Gaddafi.
Obama is a traditional liberal imperialist. In his first four years, while never for a moment departing from the grand strategy of global domination, he shifted toward the tactics of multilateralism and “engagement,” a word that appaers frequently in the National Security Strategy and Quadrennial Defense Review. The Obama administration aimed to rebuild relations with European allies, open dialogues with international competitors such as China and Russia, as well as regional powers such as Venezuela and Iran. He also initiated yet another round of “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.
Such promises to restore diplomatic relations won him the Nobel Prize. Ironically, in his acceptance speech, Obama made the case for “just” wars. That speech was a part his attempt to rehabilitate US aggression by wrapping it in the mantle of humanitarianism. He and key people in his administration like Samantha Power and UN Ambassador Susan Rice are strong advocates of the R2P doctrine.
The administration’s resuscitation of multilateral tactics is taking place in an emerging multipolar world. The United States is still the world’s sole superpower with the biggest economy and a military budget larger than all its rivals combined. However, it confronts China as a potential rival superpower at a point when the latter is already a rapidly growing economic superpower. While the United States and Europe stagnated over the last decade, China continued to boom. It has become the world’s second largest economy, displaced Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter, and ended America’s 100-year reign as the world’s largest manufacturer.
China has established itself as rival model of state-led capitalist development. The Economist now worries that this “Beijing Consensus” threatens to undermine its treasured neoliberal “Washington Consensus.” China has also become a rival nexus for international trade. Its demand for raw materials as well as markets for its products has led it to establish economic relations with developing countries all around the world.
China is now the economic hub of Asia. It has replaced the United States and the European Union as Latin America’s principle trading partner. And it is rapidly expanding in Africa. Finally, to project and protect its rise, it has modernized its military forces; it is building a blue-water navy, an advanced missile system, and an air force without rival in Asia.
The United States also confronts other international and regional powers, from Russia to Brazil, India, Iran, and Turkey. As a result of its imperial setbacks, it has found it increasingly difficult to organize the world system under its wing as it did in the 1990s. Now not only China but also these other lesser powers at times feel more confident to challenge the United States when their interests clash.
Obama serves Bush lite
In the first phase of his foreign policy, Obama implemented the strategy and tactics of Bush’s second term, attempting to salvage the failing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, Obama sustained the surge, continued to pay off the Sunni Awakening Councils, and tried to bully the Maliki regime into altering the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which the Iraqi prime minister had inked with Bush, to grant US troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution and extend the occupation.
In Afghanistan, Obama fulfilled his campaign promise of focusing on the so-called good war. He imitated Bush’s surge in Iraq, deploying 30,000 troops to wage a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban. Obama was, however, never completely committed to a mass counterinsurgency. It was always a pipedream that the United States could win over Afghanistan’s occupied hearts and minds.
Obama, therefore, turned to counterterrorism tactics. He has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes and special operations forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, these have led to a dramatic escalation of civilian deaths, as US forces have blown up everything from wedding parties to peasants in their fields. Inexorably the occupation has produced mounting atrocities with US Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, soldiers at a military base incinerating copies of the Koran, and a rogue sergeant following the logic of occupation to its murderous conclusion, massacring sixteen women and children.
These actions have only inflamed the resistance in Afghanistan and further destabilized Pakistan, undermining US control over the region. Obama’s extrajudicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden has opened up a serious split between the United States and the Pakistani military. In Afghanistan, the occupation’s recent string of atrocities has disrupted his attempt to engage the Taliban in peace talks. For now the Taliban has reversed its initial agreement to meet US representatives. Nevertheless, Obama is still trying to patch together a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. He is keen to find a way to extract the bulk of US occupying forces, cultivate an Afghan solution, and then leave behind Special Forces, CIA operatives, and drone bases to ensure Afghan obedience.
The United States has also reinforced its traditional alliance with India—the emerging Asian economic power and traditional rival to China. Pakistan has responded by threats to shift its allegiance to China, which has long been Pakistan’s largest supplier of military hardware. Despite Obama’s best efforts, Afghanistan is likely to remain an epicenter of conflict both inside the country and throughout Central and South Asia. It will be the battleground for a new “Great Game” among international and regional powers at the expense of the Afghan people.
US imperialism and the Arab Spring
Obama’s attempt to shore up America’s domination of the Middle East was disrupted by the Arab revolutions and Iraq’s refusal to renegotiate SOFA and permit an extended US occupation. Driven by anger over inequality, unemployment, and repressive regimes, the Arab Spring toppled US-aligned governments in Tunisia and most importantly that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. These revolts detonated an uprising from below, threatening the entire architecture of US imperialism in the Middle East. Obama initially responded by supporting US-aligned regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, but when they became liabilities, he attempted to contain the revolutions by currying favor with successor governments.
In Egypt, Obama supported the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which sacrificed Mubarak to preserve the basic structures of the old state. At the same time, the United States has struck a modus vivendi with the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the majority of representatives in the recent parliamentary elections. In return for support of these counterrevolutionary forces, Obama hopes to secure their promise to uphold the 1978 Camp David Accords, which secured peace between Egypt and Israel and brought Egypt into the US fold.
Elsewhere, the United States turned a blind eye to repression. Obama was silent while Saudi Arabia repressed its own Shia rebellion. His silence continued when Saudi troops rolled into neighboring Bahrain to squash that country’s Shia rebellion. The United States will not publicly criticize Saudi Arabia and risk losing it as one of its key allies in the region. Nor will it bring Bahrain to heel, because its king graciously hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
In other cases, Obama hopes to highjack the revolution to pursue preexisting plans for regime change originally plotted by the Bush administration. The precedent was set in Libya. When the revolution exploded there, the United States and Europe cultivated allies on the ground in the Transitional National Council (TNC) to take over the disparate forces fighting to overthrow Gaddafi. They secured support from the Arab League, which is dominated by US-aligned dictatorships.
They then used the R2P doctrine to justify violating Libya’s sovereignty, supposedly to prevent atrocities in Misrata. With UN approval, the United States and NATO launched a massive air war that softened the regime and enabled the US-backed TNC to take control of the country. The United States thus succeeded in toppling the regime, but, in a sign of the limitations of air power on its own, it has been unable to secure a new stable state.
While trying to navigate the threat of the Arab Spring, Obama suffered another disastrous setback in Iraq. He was unable to force Iraq to renegotiate the SOFA. As a result, the United States was forced to withdraw all of its military forces, the last ones scuttling out in the middle of the night on December 18, 2011.
Obama reorients the empire
Faced with the growing rivalry with China and America’s diminished power in the Middle East, the Obama administration has been compelled to adjust the grand strategy of global domination. Obama still intends for the United States to be, in his words, “the indispensable nation,” the world’s policeman. He will therefore continue to project American power into its traditional spheres of influence like Latin America, as well as expand its activity into other areas such as Africa, for example, through AFRICOM.
Contrary to liberal self-delusion, Obama is not really cutting the military budget. As he declared at the Pentagon announcement of his new Guidance,
Over the next ten years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: it will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.5
Washington is simply recalibrating its military hardware, personnel, and deployment to fit its new objectives. This involves reducing its military presence in Europe. More importantly, given the costs and questionable results of its Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it involves moving away from direct military invasions and occupations, and putting a stronger emphasis on the use of counterterrorist tactics that rely on Special Forces and drone strikes, as well as on “proxy” military forces. To carry this shift through, the Obama administration is cutting the size of the Army, and increasing spending on the Navy, Air Force, Special Operations Forces, and high-tech weaponry.
Obama has also abandoned the Pentagon’s longtime plan to have the capacity to fight two simultaneous ground wars. In its place he has put forward an alternative plan that would enable the United States to fight one war and deny the “objective of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.”6 Ominously, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered one scenario as an example. He said the Pentagon would be set up to carry out a land war in Korea and at the same time defeat Iran in a confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz.
In such wars, the Obama administration wants to avoid extended occupations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. For future operations Obama wants to use American air power and a local proxy army to conduct any regime changes. As the Wall Street Journal reports,
Many Obama administration officials see last year’s international military intervention in Libya as a model for future conflicts, with the United States using its air power up front while also relying on its allies, and on local force to fight on the ground.7
America’s European allies and especially NATO will figure prominently in the new US strategy. Obama intends for NATO’s European members to take on greater responsibility both on the continent and in “out-of-area operations” like Libya. The United States is also putting pressure on Europe—to little effect, however—to invest more in their militaries, modernize them, and make them technically compatible with the far more advanced US forces. The United States plans to shift two brigades out of Germany and Italy, which would leave only one in each country.
The United States plans to further develop a missile shield across Eastern Europe, nominally to prevent an attack from Iran. No one should be fooled. The real aim of the missile shield is to neutralize Russian missiles so that the United States and NATO can more easily assert themselves in Eastern Europe without fear of Russian reprisal. The United States is thus stoking tensions with Russia and encouraging an arms race in Europe. Russia has made it very clear that they see these actions as the enlargement of the American imperium and encirclement of Russia itself.
China also views the United States’ use of NATO as a threat. They looked upon the attack on Libya as an attempt to curtail Chinese access to North Africa and its energy resources. At one point, it appeared that they along with India and Russia would lose lucrative contracts with Libya after the TNC took power.
Worried about this beforehand, the Globe and Mail reports that, “state-controlled Chinese arms manufacturers were prepared to sell weapons and ammunition worth at least $200 million to the embattled Col. Gaddafi in late July, a violation of the United Nations sanctions.”8 The American use of NATO and its European allies in this fashion will tend to push Russia and China, who already collaborate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, even closer together.
The United States, however, faces real obstacles in getting its NATO allies in line. The European nations will be hard-pressed, given their budgetary crises and popular opposition, to increase their military expenditures. And it’s not clear that European states will simply follow the US lead.
France has already bolted from its troop commitments in Afghanistan, recently withdrawing its forces. Germany, the dominant economic power in Europe, is unwilling to shift its economic policy and combine stimulus measures with austerity. Moreover, European powers may be unwilling to go along with America’s aggressive policy toward Russia, given that they rely on its natural gas.
Caging the Chinese tiger
The United States’ shift in Europe is designed to free up its resources for its top long-term priority—counterbalancing China. The obsequious court journalist, Fareed Zakaria, argues that,
the strategy of “rebalancing” might well be the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy and what historians will point to when searching for an Obama Doctrine. It is premised on a simple, powerful recognition. The center of global economic power is shifting east. In 10 years, three of the world’s five largest economies will be in Asia: China, Japan and India. The greatest political tensions and struggles might also be in Asia as these countries seek political, cultural and military power as well.9
To contend with China, Obama has declared that the United States will remain the predominant Pacific power. As his Guidance states,
We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region…. Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways…. The United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely…. The growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.10
Obama has already initiated political, economic, and military policies to counterbalance China. First and foremost, the United States has sought to consolidate its traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia, hoping to use its political and military relations with these countries to prevent them from drifting out of its orbit and into China’s.
It has also changed its policies toward several Asian states to woo them into the US bloc. For example, after attempting to isolate the regime in Myanmar (Burma) for years, the United States reversed course, established diplomatic relations, and has encouraged the country to shift its economic and political allegiance from China to the United States. Myanmar has already suspended a major new contract with Beijing to build a dam on the Irrawaddy River that would have supplied power to China. Even more importantly, the United States has struck a strategic alliance with China’s antagonist, India.
Washington also hopes to manipulate political schisms between various Asian states to further disrupt China’s economic integration of Asia. For example, China is in a dispute with several Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines over rival claims to the Spratly and Parcels Islands in the South China Sea. The area is significant for a variety of reasons: it has large deposits of oil and natural gas; is a lucrative site for commercial fishing; and is a strategic corridor for international shipping.
The United States wants to interpose itself as a mediator in the situation, establish itself as an ally of the lesser powers, and subject China to multilateral negotiations. It is not doing this for any benevolent reason. As Robert Kaplan writes,
Nationalism in the South China Sea countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia—as well as countries further afield like India, Japan and Korea—may be the best basis for stitching together common interests in a loose, almost invisible network of like-minded and increasingly capable maritime states that are willing to deflect Chinese hegemony.11
Washington, however, knows that it cannot just use political alliances to disrupt the Chinese economic integration of Asia. It must also flex its own economic muscle. It has therefore initiated a new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) with nine Asian countries—Australia, Brunei, Chile, United States, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Obviously, the TPP excludes China. The United States hopes eventually to transform this into its own trade bloc, the Asia Pacific Free Trade Agreement. If it secures this, it would be the biggest trade deal since NAFTA.
To back up these political and economic maneuvers, Obama laid out military plans in the Guidance to contain and deter China. The United States already has bases throughout Asia from its “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” Japan, to Korea, Guam, and Singapore. In the Philippines, it has deployed thousands of trainers (aka soldiers) from the Joint Special Operation Task Force as part of the so-called war on terror against Abu Sayyaf. Elsewhere, the United States is looking to pre-position equipment but not personnel in what they call “places” throughout the region. These could be quickly transformed into fully operational bases in any conflict.
In its most important new initiative, the United States has also stationed 2,500 Marines in Darwin, Australia. “This is all about the rise of China, the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army and, particularly, it’s about the increased vulnerability of US forces in Japan and Guam to the new generation of Chinese missiles,” argues Alan DuPont, the Michael Hintze professor of international security at Sydney University. “The new Chinese missiles could threaten them in a way they’ve never been able to before, so the United States is starting to reposition them to make them less vulnerable. Australia’s ‘tyranny of distance’ is now a distinct strategic advantage.”12
Finally, the United States will increase its naval presence in the South China Sea along China’s shipping lanes for international commerce and oil imports. As Michael Klare observes,
For China, all this spells potential strategic impairment. Although some of China’s imported oil will travel overland through pipelines from Kazakhstan and Russia, the great majority of it will still come by tanker from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America over sea lanes policed by the US Navy. Indeed, almost every tanker bringing oil to China travels across the South China Sea, a body of water the Obama administration is now seeking to place under effective naval control.13
Predictably, China has reacted sharply and negatively to Obama’s new Guidance. Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper declared, “China must make the United States realize that its rise cannot be stopped.” It went on to say that China must not “give up its peripheral security” and should “enhance its long-distance military attack ability and develop more ways to threaten US territory in order to gradually push outward the front line of its ‘game’ with America.”14
While the United States is intent on counterbalancing China’s rise, there is no threat of any imminent war between these two powers. They both have too much to lose in such a conflict at this point because of their economic interdependence. But China’s economic expansion is bringing it into increasing conflict with the United States over everything from trade policy to international conflicts in the Middle East. As a result, this will likely be the central interimperial rivalry of the twenty-first century.
More blood for oil?
The second key theater of Obama’s new strategy is the Middle East. He is determined to regain lost ground and ensure that the United States remains in control of the region and its strategic oil reserves even as the United States becomes increasingly energy independent. By controlling the region, the United States can control all the world powers that depend on its oil to fuel their economies.
In the aftermath of its withdrawal from Iraq, Obama immediately focused on Iran, which had emerged from the Iraq war with a friendly Shia government in Baghdad to add to its network of allies that include the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Occupied Palestine. The United States aims to prevent Iran from forming a stable regional alliance that strikes a deal with China and Russia. Therefore, it is trying to isolate and sanction Iran with the hope of accomplishing some form of regime change.
Obama has launched a new offensive against Iran. Taking a page out of Bush’s playbook, Obama has used the unproven charge that Iran is developing nuclear weapons as a cover for the campaign. Just as with Iraq, United States evidence is flimsy. Even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted, “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us.”15
Nevertheless, the United States is imposing new sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, which constitutes 80 percent of the country’s exports and the core of its economy. Obama has so far secured European promises to comply with the sanctions. Saudi Arabia has agreed to increase production to ensure that Europe faces no oil shortages. If the United States is able to enforce the sanctions it will cripple the economy, imposing on Iran the nightmarish conditions US sanctions created in Iraq during the 1990s.
The United States has also spearheaded the formation of a regional alliance against Iran. It has turned to Israel and the Sunni states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which journalist Pepe Escobar has rightly renamed the “Gulf Counter-Revolution Council.” The United States recently finalized a new $30 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. This US-sponsored Sunni bloc against Shia Iran could regionalize the Sunni-Shia civil war that the US stoked in Iraq.
The United States has deployed its military to weaken the regime and enforce the sanctions. The United States has already been engaged in series of illegal black operations designed to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Last year, it managed to destroy some of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with a computer virus called Stuxnet. The United States and Israel are probably responsible for the sequence of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. The United States is policing Iranian airspace with drones, one of which was shot down by the Iranian air force. It has also doubled the number of Navy ships to prevent Iran from shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
However, this offensive against Iran faces major opposition. Russia has repeatedly come out against the new sanctions regime, as has China. Turkey has also raised concerns about US aggression against Iran. It has significant trade relations with Iran and is increasingly positioning itself as a Middle Eastern power. Similarly, Brazil and several other developing countries have questioned the use of sanctions. “Iran may be ‘isolated’ from the United States and Western Europe,” writes Pepe Escobar,
but from the BRICS to NAM (the 120 counties of the Non-Aligned Movement), it has the majority of the global South on its side. And then of course, there are those staunch Washington allies, Japan and South Korea, now pleading for exemptions from the coming boycott/embargo of Iran’s Central Bank. No wonder because these unilateral US sanctions are also aimed at Asia. After all, China, India, Japan and South Korea, together, buy no less than 62 percent of Iran’s oil exports.16
The wild card in Obama’s plot against Iran is Israel. The Zionist state sees Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as a threat to its regional nuclear monopoly and an existential threat. They have issued a stream of bellicose rhetoric calling for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the next several months. And, despite Obama’s dogged support of Israel, no matter how extreme its crimes against Palestinians, Zionist organizations in the United States have backed Republican candidates and politicians to put pressure on the administration to act against Iran.
Obama has, however, made it clear that his administration opposes an Israeli attack. The Pentagon, based on a simulation of the likely impact of an Israeli strike, agreed with Obama and predicted that such a strike would cause a regional conflagration to the detriment of US interests. Such a conflict could cut off oil supplies and lead to a global recession. While war is not imminent, this does not mean that at a future date the US might not decide to go to war with Iran.
Proxy war in Syria
The US offensive against Iran is driving its policy in Iraq and Syria. While Obama was unable to bully Iraq into accepting an extended occupation, he has no intention of allowing Iraq to fall completely into Iran’s orbit. The United States will therefore maintain a robust presence in the country.
Even after projected cuts in staff, the United States will still have the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, it is policing Iraq’s airspace with drones, and it will conduct extensive CIA operations in the country for decades to come.17 As the Washington Post reports, the CIA will be “monitoring developments in the increasingly antagonistic government, seeking to suppress al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country and countering the influence of Iran.”18
In Syria, Obama is intent on weakening if not replacing Iran’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. In many ways, he is following the Libya script. Up until recently, both the United States and Israel had tolerated Assad’s regime and relied upon it to keep peace on the Israeli border. Now, however, Obama is trying to highjack the revolutionary movement against the regime to serve US aims.
Obama has hypocritically criticized the Assad regime of repression of the country’s population, while he has been mute about allies’ similar behavior. The United States has mobilized the Arab League to organize regional pressure to force Assad to step down. They have also found a section of the resistance, the Syrian National Council, which is eager to collaborate with the United States. At an Istanbul meeting of the US-backed formations, Friends of Syria, America’s Arab allies promised $100 million to sponsor its selected resistance fighters and the United States pledged to provide communications equipment to help those forces evade the Syrian military.
Obama has attempted to use the R2P doctrine to win UN approval for the United States and its allies to pursue regime change in the country. Certainly, they along with Israel do not support a genuine revolution, but merely superficial change that would replace Assad’s Iranian allied regime with one aligned with the United States. However, unlike in Libya, both China and Russia have signaled opposition to the US policy. They united in a joint veto in the UN Security Council that would have approved an Arab League plan for Assad to give up power. Nevertheless, the United States and its allies are giving millions of dollars in “nonlethal” aid to the Syrian opposition, and is discussing the possibility of arming it.
Drones for troops?
The final element in Obama’s new strategy is his decision to prosecute the so-called war on terror through counterterrorist tactics such as Black Ops and drone strikes, instead of invasions, occupations, and counterinsurgency. He has drawn the rather obvious conclusion that invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan bogged down the US in endless occupations to the detriment of US imperialism.
He plans to increase the budget of the CIA and the Joint Special Operation Task Force. He also has promised a 30 percent increase in the budget for drones and drone bases. The US already has fifty-six drone bases operated by the CIA and plans for a drastic increase all around the world.
Despite this shift, Washington has made it clear that it will retain the expertise and commitment to invade and occupy other countries, if necessary. As the Christian Science Monitor reports,
Pentagon officials say the new strategy is not set in stone. Take for example their call for no longer keeping a large Army for long land wars or for stabilizing another nation. The Pentagon wants to maintain the know-how and capability to still do that—just not with active troops and equipment at the ready.19
Obama’s new Guidance adjusts the US grand strategy of global domination to counterbalance China as well as manage other emergent powers from Russia to Brazil in the increasingly multipolar world order. Washington faces a huge challenge in maintaining, let alone enhancing, its position against its rivals. In order to be able to pay for its strategic and military aims, it must cut its debt and deficit, restore profitability by further driving down wages and benefits, and rebuild a competitive industrial base. Whatever the outcome of its efforts, US competition with China in particular, as well as a host of other states, will shape the coming decades.
- Department of Defense, “Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense,” January 2012, available at www.defense.gov.
- John Mearsheimer, “Imperial by design,” The National Interest, January–February 2011, 18.
- Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 40.
- Quoted in Francis FitzGerald, “George Bush and the world,” New York Review of Books, September 26, 2002.
- Barack Obama, “Remarks on the Defense Strategic Review,” January 5, 2012, available at www.whitehouse.gov.
- Department of Defense, “Sustaining US global leadership.”
- Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Siobhan Gorman, “More drones, fewer troops,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2012.
- Graeme Smith, “China offered Gadhafi huge stockpiles of arms: Libyan memos,” Globe and Mail, September 2, 2011.
- Fareed Zakaria, “The strategist,” Time, January 12, 2012.
- Department of Defense, “Sustaining US global leadership.”
- Quoted in Jim Lobe, “Call for US naval buildup in South China Sea,” Asia Times, January 12, 2012.
- Peter Hartcher, “US Marine base for Darwin,” Sidney Morning Herald, November 11, 2011.
- Michael Klare, “A new cold war in Asia,” TomDispatch.com, December 6, 2011.
- Quoted in Damien Grammaticas, “China in US gunsights,” BBC News, January 6, 2012.
- Quoted in Kevin Hechtkopf, “Panetta: Iran cannot develop nukes, block strait,” Face the Nation, January 8, 2012.
- Pepe Escobar, “The myth of ‘isolated’ Iran,” TomDispatch.com, January 17, 2012.
- For an account of the continued US domination of Iraq see Alan Cafruny and Timothy Lehman, “Over the horizon: The United States and Iraq,” New Left Review, 73, January/February 2012, 5–16. While the article documents all the ways the United States still maintains control of the country, it dramatically underestimates the setback the United States has suffered in Iraq and the region. The United States has fallen far short of achieving the goals of the Bush administration and is far weaker today in the Middle East than it was before the Iraq war.
- Greg Miller, “The CIA digs in as America withdraws from Iraq, Afghanistan,” Washington Post, February 7, 2012.
- “Obama military strategy: is it bipartisan enough?” Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 2012.