The more things change. . . the more they stay the same
GEORGE W. BUSH departed the White House as one of the most despised political figures in the world. Barack Obama, on the other hand, rode a wave of worldwide goodwill that was evident even in the summer before his election as president, when hundreds of thousands of Germans greeted him like a rock star at a Berlin rally. The Nobel Foundation confirmed the world’s hopes for a shift in US foreign policy when it awarded Obama, barely eight months into his term, a Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” With the exception of the obvious fact that he was not George W. Bush, it was hard to see what Obama had accomplished to qualify him for a Peace Prize. Nevertheless, the American establishment had to have been pleased, because it realized that the United States needed a makeover on the international stage. As the socialist and Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar put it,
The interests of American imperialism obviously find their ultimate guarantee in military supremacy, but a politico-ideological facelift is a necessary and useful complement. Under Bush, the arrogance and right-wing shift went so far that it seems imperative for the “enlightened” fraction of the American establishment to steer “to the left,” at least in words. This is where someone like Barack Obama can be useful.1
It soon became clear that the “change” Obama brought to foreign policy was one of style, rather than of substance. Obama signaled his commitment to continuity with the Bush administration early on when he reappointed Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates. Later, Obama promoted General David Petraeus, architect of Bush’s 2007–08 “surge” strategy in Afghanistan first as commander of the international force in Afghanistan, and, later in 2011, as Central Intelligence Agency director. And his choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state affirmed that the differences on the Iraq war they had aired during the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating campaign were forgotten.
The continuity of personnel underscored the continuity of goals and policies between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. The lack of any “progressive” content in Obama’s foreign policy could be seen clearly in the administration’s relations with Latin America, a region that had experienced a “pink tide” of reformist governments throughout the Bush years. Rather than embrace this demand for change in the Americas, Obama—like Bush before him—stood apart from it, when not trying to undermine it. When the Honduran military overthrew reformist Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the Obama administration made noises about the coup being “illegal,” but then did nothing to support Zelaya or to speak out on repression in the country. In the standard weasel words of diplomacy, it called for “a negotiated solution” and for “both sides” to agree. By failing to stand firmly against the coup, the Obama administration sided with the coup-makers.
International negotiations ultimately secured the return of Zelaya in 2011, but in the meantime, the United States won international recognition for the coup regime and the demobilization of the grassroots resistance to the coup. If US support for the Honduran military harkened back to the old days where the Pentagon trained repressive Central American militaries at the School of the Americas,2 Obama’s economic policies built on the “free trade” agreements of his predecessors. In 2011, Obama couldn’t muster congressional support for a jobs bill, but he had no trouble pushing through “free trade” agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.3 Manuel Perez-Rocha drew this balance sheet of Obama’s policy in Latin America: “In spite of catchy new phrases for cooperation and engagement with Latin America and rhetoric about the importance of equal partnerships with the countries in the region, Obama’s trip to Latin America promised more of the same—más de lo mismo—for the countries of the region, which in the end tastes like the imperialism of the past.”4
Obama’s continuation of US domination in Latin America was a minor concession to conventional wisdom compared to his embrace of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” In one of his first acts as president, Obama signed an executive order to close the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At “Gitmo,” hundreds of “war on terror” prisoners were held for years without charges or trials—violating international law and drawing condemnation from the US Supreme Court. Yet within a few months of signing the executive order—in the face of opposition from members of Congress, including most members of his own party—Obama began to back away from his pledge to close the camp. By mid-2009, the Obama administration announced its position on many of Bush’s most controversial “war on terror” policies, accepting many of them—military detainees tribunals and indefinite detention by presidential fiat among them—as his own. Coupled with his double-speak on torture—that he repudiated the Bush policies as illegal, but would not actually prosecute anyone who executed them—Obama served to legitimize many of the practices that he had criticized as a candidate. By the one-year anniversary of the executive order, when the closure of Guantánamo Bay was supposed to be complete, it was clear that Obama’s executive order was a dead letter. One could even ask if Obama ever had a real plan to close the prison in Cuba; at most he planned to move it to a prison in Illinois before Congress refused to fund the transfer. The administration gave up trying to find a way to shut the prison that had crystallized so much worldwide hatred of the Bush regime. In a separate executive order issued in March 2011, Obama codified the Bush policies of indefinite detention and military tribunals.5
The capitulation on Guantánamo put into relief the role in the conduct of US foreign policy that the Obama administration adopted for itself. Rather than fundamentally changing course away from many of the Bush administration’s most repressive policies, the Obama administration helped to sanitize them. This was completely predictable, because the power of the US presidency is cumulative. Once one chief executive seizes power for himself, his predecessors will not give it up willingly. Policies that liberals and Democrats considered heinous and extreme when Bush enacted them, became, with Obama’s help, part of the bipartisan consensus of American foreign policy.
During the 2008 election campaign, Obama consistently contrasted Bush’s war in Iraq with the war in Afghanistan. The Iraq war, he often said, was the “wrong war at the wrong time” and diverted attention and resources from the real front in the fight against “terrorism”: Afghanistan. Obama pledged to refocus US policy and to reinforce the war in Afghanistan. This was one campaign promise that Obama kept. In 2009 he announced the deployment of an additional thirty thousand troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total of US troops there to more than a hundred thousand by mid-2011, on the eve of the war’s tenth anniversary. At the same time, Obama stepped up the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to attack supposed “militant” targets in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. These moves escalated the war in Central Asia beyond limits that even the Bush administration had established. In his first twenty-one months in office, Obama authorized 120 drone attacks on Islamist targets in Pakistan—an ostensible ally in the Afghan war. This amounted to twice as many attacks as Bush authorized in eight years.
In fact, Obama expanded this use of remote-control warfare from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen, where, in 2011, a drone carried out Obama’s order to assassinate American-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. As constitutional lawyer and commentator Glenn Greenwald pointed out, not even Bush had ventured to assert the US president’s right to order the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen without any semblance of due process.6 Obama had proven to be a more ruthless, and in some senses, more extreme conservator of his predecessor’s legacy, as two writers for the German newspaper Der Spiegel noted:
Today, Obama’s CIA no longer carries out kidnappings—it carries out killings. This means that the CIA can assume a military role and wage a war unconstrained by international law or the laws of war. It is waging that war in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and Yemen, where officially there is no war.
The advantage of the CIA’s new approach is simple. Prisoners have to be released at some point, or at least put on trial. Prisoners mean the possibility of facing investigations or having to address journalists’ questions. Killing is easier.
Obama’s CIA decides who lives and who dies.7
As with all American presidents in the post–World War II era, Obama’s overall policy goals hinge heavily on the United States’s relationship with the Middle East, the most strategically important region of the world. Having inherited an unpopular, disastrous, and costly (at more than $1 trillion) war of choice in Iraq, Obama was expected to encourage a less belligerent posture than that of Bush. Obama won praise from across the political spectrum for his widely touted June 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, designed to signal a “new beginning” in relations between the United States and the Islamic world. But Obama’s rhetorical nods toward dialogue, democracy, and openness carried little change in US policy toward the region.8
One indication of this was the Obama administration’s continued devotion to supporting the most rejectionist policies of its main ally in the region, Israel. Unlike Bush and Cheney. Obama and Biden criticized Israel’s policy of continued settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But like Bush and Cheney, Obama and Biden did nothing about it. On multiple occasions when Israel’s actions brought worldwide condemnation, the Obama administration stood alone in its defense. In 2010, when Israeli commandoes attacked a flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza, killing nine unarmed civilians, the Obama administration worked overtime to water down the United Nations’ condemnation of the raid.9 When the Palestinian Authority petitioned the United Nations to be recognized as the government of an independent state in 2011, the United States and Israel, virtually alone, led the opposition.
Perhaps even more indicative of the Obama administration’s commitment to the status quo in the Middle East was its reaction to popular movements for democracy in the region. In 2011, when the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East and North Africa, the administration stayed loyal to US-allied dictators like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak almost to the bitter end. Meanwhile, it supported Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Bahrain to suppress a popular movement for democracy there. It subsequently dispatched Secretary of State Clinton to Bahrain, the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, to offer an increase in arms sales to the kingdom.10
Nevertheless, the Obama administration’s most audacious action during the Arab Spring was to support (and bankroll) a UN-sanctioned NATO intervention in the civil war in Libya. In so doing, Obama rehabilitated the concept of “humanitarian intervention” last embraced during Clinton’s 1999 Kosovo adventure. Despite their rhetorical differences, the “liberal interventionists” in Obama’s administration behaved almost identically to the discredited neoconservatives of the Bush regime, foreign policy expert Stephen M. Walt argued. “So if you’re baffled by how Mr. ‘Change You Can Believe In’ morphed into Mr. ‘More of the Same,’ you shouldn’t really be surprised. . . . Most of the US foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.”11 NATO intervention tipped the balance in favor of rebels who overthrew the Libyan dictator (and one-time US ally) Moammar Qaddafi. But at the moment of triumph, it was unclear whether the Libyan opposition would be able to forge a truly independent country or if NATO intervention had made the new Libya safe for Western oil companies, popular aspirations be damned.12
As the US/Western intervention in North Africa reached its goal of toppling Qaddafi, Obama dispatched a hundred US Special Forces troops to Uganda on the premise that they would help the Ugandan government defeat the Lord’s Resistance Army, a fanatical sect of a few hundred. But like the intervention in Libya, the intervention in Uganda was part of a longer campaign—accelerated under Obama—of militarizing US foreign policy toward Africa, with the aim of challenging China’s increasing influence in the region.13
What became of the Iraq war, opposition to which was one of the main launching points for Obama’s presidential candidacy? In October 2011, Obama announced that all US combat troops would be pulled out of Iraq. While this announcement appeared to fulfill liberals’ hopes, it was also coupled with a clear sense that the United States was merely refocusing its efforts in the region. The withdrawal still left the world’s largest US embassy, and tens of thousands of private mercenaries operating outside the boundaries of US military law, in Iraq. Moreover, the Obama administration executed what amounted to a redeployment of US forces to reactionary Gulf monarchies like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which stood out as bulwarks of the status quo against the Arab Spring.
While redeployed, US troops would be kept at the ready for any future military action in the region, including against the new US bogeyman, Iran. The United States envisioned a stronger and more formal military alliance with the Gulf Cooperation Council, developing further the alliance that Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had initiated. “We are kind of thinking of going back to the way it was before we had a big ‘boots on the ground’ presence,” Major General Karl R. Horst, Central Command’s chief of staff, said. “I think it is healthy. I think it is efficient. I think it is practical.”14 Ironically, Obama won election by repudiating George W. Bush, only to reestablish the foreign policy of Bush’s father.
- See Gilbert Achcar, “Balance-sheet of US Imperialism,” International Socialist Review 61 (September–October, 2008) at http://www.isreview.org/issues/61/feat-a....
- In 2000, the United States Congress renamed the School of the Americas the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
- For analysis of the international agreement that codified Zelaya’s return, see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “From Cartagena to Tegucigalpa: Imperialism and the Future of the Honduran Resistance,” Bullet, July 6, 2011, at http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/52....
- Manuel Perez-Rocha, “Obama in Latin America: Another Missed Opportunity,” Foreign Policy in Focus, March 24, 2011, at http://www.fpif.org/articles/obama_in_la....
- Dafna Lizner, “Obama Makes Indefinite Detention and Military Commissions His Own,” Pro Publica, March 8, 2011, at http://www.propublica.org/article/obama-....
- Glenn Greenwald, “Confirmed: Obama Authorizes Assassination of U.S. Citizen,” Salon, April 7, 2011, http://www.salon.com/2010/04/07/assassin..., accessed on October 30, 2011.
- Klaus Brinkbäumer and John Goetz, “Taking Out Terrorists by Remote Control,” Der Spiegel, October 12, 2011, at http://www.spiegel.de/international/worl..., accessed on October 30, 2011.
- See Deepa Kumar’s analysis of the Obama speech in “Looking Beyond the Symbolism,” Socialist Worker, June 12, 2009, http://socialistworker.org/2009/06/12/lo....
- Jim Lobe, “Obama Seeks to Quiet Outrage over Gaza Raids,” InterPress News Agency, June 1, 2010, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=51679.
- See Juan Cole, “Palestine, Bahrain and US Hypocrisy,” Informed Comment, September 24, 2011, at http://www.juancole.com/2011/09/palestin....
- Stephen M. Walt, “What Intervention in Libya Tells Us about the Neocon-Liberal Alliance,” Foreign Policy, March 21, 2011, at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011....
- For an assessment of post-Qaddafi Libya, see Phyllis Bennis, “Libya: Too Soon to Declare Victory,” Institute for Policy Studies, August 22, 2011, at http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/libya_too....
- John Pilger, “US Combat Troops Descend on Africa,” Truthout, October 20, 2011 at http://www.truth-out.org/us-combat-troop....
- Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers, “US Planning Troop Buildup in Gulf After Exit from Iraq,” New York Times, October 29, 2011.